It’s rare to hear tears during a screening, but that’s precisely what happened at the Ebertfest screening of “13th” Saturday. The Oscar-nominated documentary from filmmaker Ava DuVernay (“Selma,” “A Wrinkle in Time”), received a rapturous, five-minute standing ovation when DuVernay was introduced to a packed house at the Virginia Theatre by Chaz Ebert.
“Thanks for coming to the Saturday morning screening—and to see a documentary no less,” DuVernay said as Ebert presented her with the “Golden Thumb” award, a trophy modeled on the hand of her late husband, Roger Ebert.
The mission of “13th” is to explain how a vague clause in the 13th Amendment—“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime [my emphasis] … shall exist within the United States—has been used since the abolition of slavery to continue to disenfranchise persons of color. The justice system favors those who are rich, the film posits, with the poor who cannot afford expensive lawyers typically taking a plea and thus never getting to trial.
DuVernay’s entrancing film features academics, politicians and thinkers expounding upon that long, brutal history, from Reconstruction and Jim Crow on through segregation and right on up to the ongoing disenfranchisement of the formerly incarcerated even after they have paid their debt to society.
DuVernay said she was proud to have conservative voices represented in the film, and cheered the bravery of figures like Newt Gingrich and David Keene whose agreeing with her thesis may have put them somewhat at odds with their base.
“I did two hours with each [subject]. It’s hard to hold up your guard for two hours,” the director said of waring down her interviewees.
Chaz Ebert related that DuVernary ran up to she and Roger outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles when she was eight years old. So excited was she to meet “the thumbs-up man” that years later she wrote to the Chicago Sun-Times critic pleading with him to review her film “I Will Follow.”
“This film I made for $50,000 of my own money, he gave it not one glorious review, not two, but three different reviews,” DuVernay said, adding that the accolades helped propel her in Hollywood. “I always saw a correlation of [recognition] by Roger” and her success, she said. “He had such empathy for voices that were not his own.”
DuVernay grew up in Compton, California, which she said was the catalyst for her seeking to understand more about the history of the black community and law enforcement.
“I started out looking at how prison was a business, and that turned into just a small part of the film,” she said of “13th.” I was startled by how many people didn’t see the link directly from slavery to mass incarceration.”
“13th” also includes footage from “Birth of a Nation,” the 1915 D.W. Griffith silent epic known not only for essentially inventing the language of modern cinema but also for its lionizing of the KKK and its horrifying depictions of white actors in blackface.
“‘Birth of a Nation’ spawned the idea of a big opener, national distribution—besides being insanely racist and very beautiful in some ways in terms of craft, which for me is hard to reckon,” DuVernay said.
Both DuVernay and Chaz Ebert spoke about the need to increase the creative voices of women, particularly women of color, in the entertainment industry.
“So much of what we see comes from a white male gaze. And I love white men, but all we’re saying is everyone should have a seat at the table,” DuVernay said, leading to laughter in the theater.
She also noted that “Game of Thrones” has not had a single episode directed by a woman in its six-season run. (Editor’s note: While majority of the episodes were directed by men, Michelle MacLaren has directed a few episodes.)
“It’s changing, but … these are the kinds of things that my white male counterparts don’t have to deal with; they just get to make their movies,” she said.
While “13th” always gets quite a reaction from audiences, DuVernay said it is up to the public to “solve” the issue of mass incarceration, not the talking heads in the film.
“If we are truly a people who believe in truth and justice for all, it’s not just about watching the documentary. Look into organizations and continue to read and continue to study,” she said.
Saturday afternoon Chaz Ebert introduced the 1991 film “Daughters of the Dust” from Julie Dash. Dash’s family is Gullah Geechee, a group from the small islands off the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia that largely developed on its own after the end of slavery, and it is that culture that forms the backbone of the narrative of “Daughters of the Dust.” The film is a dreamy reverie about a black family intent on moving “north” to the mainland, while some elder members of the clan want to stay behind. The narrative toys with its own chronology and even teases the notion of the supernatural being ever-present in these people’s lives.
“The reason I made this film and set it in this location is I wanted to take a look at what the first generation of African Americans were doing [who were] born free,” Dash said of her film, which is set in 1902. “I decided because I had seen so many movies about enslavement that I needed another way to show the scars of slavery,” she said, adding that her film shows the island family’s hands literally having turned blue from working with indigo plants for so many years.
“Indigo was the first cash crop that helped to build colonial America,” said Dash. “The indigo was processed in the sea islands, and then the dyes were shipped to Europe because at the time every military uniform was blue, so they needed that dye that could only be processed in the New World.”
“Daughters of the Dust” was made at the dawn of the nascent independent film movement. Before crowdsourcing was even a term, Dawn nudged friends and family to help her raise $5,000 to make a 10-minute trailer to show to investors.
“I didn’t expect our little film to get reviewed, but then someone said ‘You better turn on ‘Siskel & Ebert’,” the director recalled. “I was proud, but not as proud as my mother [who said] bootleg copies were being sold on 125th Street” in New York, thus lending her endevor a certain level of legitimacy.
Dash, who has taught at Wayne State University as well as Morehouse College in Atlanta, said while the family in “Daughters of the Dead” makes it off the island, the irony is that “going north” meant trading their self-subsistence off the land for the ghettos of New York, Philadelphia and Detroit.
“The Industrial Revolution was hot and they wanted to be a part of it. And you don’t come back,” she said. “When you’re gone, you’re gone.”
The day’s third film, “Rambling Rose,” was also female-directed. Set in Depression-era Georgia, “Rambling Rose” stars Laura Dern as Rose, a young Alabama woman who is hired by a well-to-do hotel manager (Robert Duvall) to nanny his children. But both the hotelier and his 13-year-old son (Lukas Haas) become attracted to Rose, leading to problems for all concerned.
Director Martha Coolidge (“Real Genius,” “Valley Girl”) said she would likely have trouble getting “Rambling Rose” made today not only due to its depiction of sexual contact between a minor and an adult, but also due to social behavior of the 1930s now considered unacceptable—such as Duvall cheerfully patting his employee Rose on the bottom in full view of his wife (Diane Ladd) and children.
“I think it’s important [that it reflected the times], but I wouldn’t make it that way” today, Coolidge said, adding the scene of the boy and Rose together in bed was in fact censored in England.
The 1991 film plays somewhat clumsily in 2018, in an era of consciousness due to the #MeToo movement and Hollywood serial predators being faced with reckoning, but also because Rose’s sexual compulsions and sexy wardrobe are played somewhat for laughs.
However, Coolidge feels “Rambling Rose” is ultimately hopeful given that Ladd’s character is a champion for Rose, even though Rose often makes questionable decisions.
“Women have had this stuff done to them for hundreds of years. It was very important that someone took up her champion, and it was Mother, Diane, not Father,” Coolidge said. “I think that every point Mother makes about Rose is right.”
To underscore the point, a quote by Dern from around the time of the film’s 1991 release was read aloud: “It was great to have Martha understand the needs and desires of Rose. The male characters in the movie misinterpret her motives, but the women understand her all the way through.”
“Rambling Rose” earned Oscar nods for both Dern and Ladd—the first time a mother and daughter were both nominated for appearing in the same film.
For the closing film of the 2018 festival Sunday, Chaz Ebert and festival director Nate Kohn selected the outstanding 2017 documentary “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World,” which explores the influences of Native American musical sensibilities on the birth and growth of rock n’ roll.
The film shows how the cultures of Native Americans and African Americans intermingled in the early South, with both groups facing oppression and finding levity together through their music. Slave songs, one subject posits, in fact came from Indian musical forms.
“What I didn’t know is how much of our rock and even gospel music was influenced by Native American contributions,” said co-director Alfonso Maiorana. “I like those movies where you think you know something and you realize how much you didn’t know.”
Blacks and Indians not only intermarried but intermingled their music, and this union gave rise to the early forms of blues and jazz and even bluegrass. The song “Rumble” by the Shawnee guitarist Link Wray, which lent its name to the doc, is widely considered to be the first “mainstream” Indian rock song.
Other high-caliber rockers of Native American heritage appearing in the film include Robbie Robertson of The Band and Stevie Salas, who served as a producer.
“I was shocked and surprised going into the South that no one can speak about their indigenous roots,” Maiorana said. “Being from Canada and having a relationship with Indigenous people since I was a kid, I didn’t think going across America that people wouldn’t want to talk about it. … You realize they’ve always been told not to speak about it.”
Indeed, several of the film’s subjects from New Orleans relate that the only thing “worse” than being black was to be Indian, and thus they hid this from their social circles.
Maiorana siad it took him some five years to collect all of his interviews, with Wray fan Iggy Pop being one of the last to be taped as he was editing together the footage. There was much he had to leave on the cutting room floor, he said, and many other stories yet to be told, such as those of the musical heritage of the native populations of Alaska and Hawaii.
“The indigenous response has been great. They feel like they’ve been talking about this for the longest time,” Maiorana said. “It’s important for them to pass on this culture.
“I’d like to thank all the indigenous ancestors of this land for sharing their [culture] with us,” he said. “Diversity is freedom, and if there’s freedom, there’s happiness and a path to knowledge. When that happens, maybe everybody can get along.”
As the closing salvo of Ebertfest 2018, Indian musician Pura Fe performed on the Virginia’s stage as the curtain closed on the proceedings.