Oscar-Nominated Director Ava DuVernay's Provocative Message for President Trump
The "13th" documentary director expresses her concerns about the president.
— -- In her Oscar-nominated documentary “13th,” director Ava DuVernay examines a prison industry that she says is rooted in racism. The film also explores the impact of decades of law and order policies from both sides of the political aisle.
The title refers to the 13th amendment to the constitution, which abolished slavery. “[From] slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, the drug wars, the Reagan years, the Nixon years, the Clinton years, and then the prison bloom and how it mushroomed and up to Black Lives Matter,” DuVernay said in an interview with ABC News’ “Nightline.”
Five teens were found guilty for beating and raping a female jogger in the park. Some believe prosecutors were under intense public pressure to quickly solve the case.
At the time, then-businessman Trump garnered headlines for speaking out about the case, saying he wanted to bring back the death penalty in New York state. He took out a full page newspaper advertisement to put pressure on lawmakers.
The teens, all under 18, went to adult prison for 6 to 11 years before DNA evidence proved they were innocent. Their convictions were overturned and they were given a $40 million settlement from the city of New York.
Despite their exoneration, Trump told CNN in a statement just weeks before the 2016 presidential election, “The fact that the case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous.”
DuVernay says that act was an early indicator of what she describes as Trump’s racist views.
“And he’s done nothing but be consistent in his views and in his rhetoric,” DuVernay said.
When asked if she thinks Trump is racist, DuVernay said, “Yeah, I think he is.”
Trump has previously denied accusations of racism, telling a local NBC station in 2016, “I am the least racist person you’ve ever met.”
But in “13th,” DuVernay crafts her argument in a controversial scene, weaving together Trump’s campaign rhetoric with archival images from the Civil Rights era.
Footage of Trump reacting to protestors at his campaign rallies, saying, “In the good old days, this doesn't happen because they used to treat them very, very rough, and when they protested once, you know they would not do it again so easily,” and “I love the old days you know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this. They’d be carried out on a stretcher folks,” is cut together with black and white historic civil rights era video of African Americans being beaten and being carried off.
“It’s really the same rhetoric, the same racist language. It’s the same really toxic environment that he created at those rallies,” DuVernay said.
Some of DuVernay’s own personal history is infused into the film's subject material. DuVernay grew up just miles from Hollywood in Compton during the 1980s, where gang violence, racial tensions and harsh policing were an everyday reality.
“Most people grow up, and they think when they see an officer, they think safety, protection,” DuVernay said. “I never, never thought that. I always thought fear. I started to put that fear of police and what I learned about the legacy of marginalized people together.”
Of the 2.2 million people behind bars in the U.S., nearly 60 percent are people of color.
One of the tragic cases highlighted in the documentary is the story of Kalief Browder, whose case “Nightline” began following in 2015. Falsely accused of stealing a backpack, Browder refused to plead guilty. Because his family couldn’t afford bail, he was incarcerated in jail at New York’s Rikers Island.
While there, Browder was beaten by correction officers and a gang of prisoners. He spent most of his three years behind bars in solitary confinement until all charges were dropped.
But the psychological trauma had taken its toll on Browder. Two years later, he committed suicide at the age of 22.
“I just feel so strongly that he was a martyr for this cause in some ways," DuVerynay said of Browder. "His voice, for a very clear reason, rang out, and I think his reason was to shed light on this epidemic.”
DuVernay hopes to take home an Academy Award for “13th.” Last year her movie “Selma” was nominated for an Oscar for best picture, but her role as director was overlooked.
She says this year’s nominations are far more colorful than those of the past.
“The first black woman editor, the first African American cinematographer -- you have the first woman nominated for composing in 17 years, right?” DuVernay said. “They’ve taken systemic change. We’re going to reimagine what our membership looks like. We’re going to change the rules for what it means and how to get into the Academy.”