In its 54 years, the New York Film Festival has never opened with a work of non-fiction, until now. This year’s festival will kick off with what may be one of the most important and politically relevant films of the year, Ava DuVernay’s documentary The 13th, about the U.S. prison industry and the nation’s history of racial inequality.

The film, which will open the festival on September 30, will explore the question of why America has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The Selma filmmaker’s documentary refers to the 13th Amendment which states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” The doc will also feature interviews with politicians, activists, and historians including Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, Angela Davis, Senator Cory Booker, Grover Norquist, Khalil Muhammad, Craig DeRoche, Shaka Senghor, Malkia Cyril, and Henry Louis Gates Jr.

In a press release from Netflix, who will stream the film along with a limited theatrical release on October 7, DuVernay said the film came from her own questions about the country’s prison industry:

This film was made as an answer to my own questions about how and why we have become the most incarcerated nation in the world, how and why we regard some of our citizens as innately criminal, and how and why good people allow this injustice to happen generation after generation.

The 13th won’t just focus on American prisons today, which hold nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population. The documentary will chart the country’s history of racial inequality with archival footage of the Civil Rights Movement into today’s Black Lives Matter movement, examining questions of how fear and discrimination have led to the country’s mass criminalization. The filmmaker recently tweeted a Frederick Douglass quote from 1846 that highlights how little has changed for people of color in America from slavery to today’s prison system:

News of DuVernay’s film is coming at an incredibly important time, following the recent murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and one year since the death of Sandra Bland, – and by the way, since Bland’s death last July, 810 people have lost their lives in jail. It’s clear why need a powerful look at the real-life horrors of today's prison system and the high incarceration rates of people of color, especially at a time when Black Lives Matter is more vital than ever. It’s exciting to see the New York Film Festival supporting DuVernay’s voice by giving The 13th the opening night slot and making it their first documentary opener.

The festival director Ken Jones described the film as a “true act of patriotism,” and I'm sure The 13th will be a strong awards contender this fall. The 54th New York Film Festival runs from September 30 - October 16. Check out a behind the scenes photo of the film below.


More From ScreenCrush