Directed by: Ava DuVernay.
Written by: Spencer Averick & Ava DuVernay.
I’m not sure that there will be a more relevant film this year than Ava DuVernay’s stunning documentary 13th. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best film of the year – hell, in a year that produced O.J.: Made in America, it’s not even the best documentary – yet it is the film that I would most encourage everyone to see – especially those people who have spent the last couple of months complaining about Colin Kapernick kneeling during the National Anthem or complain that it should be All Lives Matter instead of Black Lives Matter. I don’t necessarily think that 13th uncovers a lot of new information about its subject matter – how the legal system in America criminalizes being black – but it’s as stunning of a 90 minute summation on the topic could possibility being.
The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution freed the slaves – but contained in it a clause that the documentary will return to again and again – which basically says that all men are free from indentured servitude, unless as punishment for a crime – in which case, all bets are off. What DuVernay spends the film doing is documenting the various ways the legal system has been used in the aftermath of that amendment – all the way to today. It argues, as should be clear to all but apparently is not, that things like Black Lives Matter, and the protests against police in the wake of the number of shootings of unarmed African American men, did not happen in a vacuum – that in order to understand them all, you need to understand the history that led to them. Basically, the film argues that ever since the 13th Amendment was passed, America has found one way after another to keep black people in prison – it’s Jim Crow laws, Richard Nixon’s Law & Order campaign, Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs, George H.W. Bush and the Willie Horton ad, Bill Clinton’s three strikes and you’re out law, mandatory minimums, super predators, etc. etc. etc. The Prison Industrial Complex now is huge – and there’s a lot of money to be made in it. But in order for that money to keep flowing, there needs to be a constant stream of prisoners going to jail. The prison population keeps expanding – America has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the number of prisoners in the world. Black men make up only 6% of the America population, but 40% of the prison population – one out of every four of them will spend time in jail. This has far reaching consequences on the African American community – fathers taken away from their children, for years at a time – and when they do get out, they cannot vote or do other things everyone takes for granted.
If 13th were just a series of statistics – spouted off by a series of talking heads, like most documentaries, it would still be a good film. But the film is more than that. DuVernay doesn’t just have her talking heads spout those statistics, she also charts the cultural stereotype of the scary black man – from D.W. Griffth’s The Birth of a Nation in 1915, to today – how the media shapes the conversation, and even turns African Americans against their own – African Americans buy into the racist rhetoric like everyone else does.
The film is also interesting visually – the film contains many shock cuts of the word “Criminal” every time it’s uttered in the movie, bringing to the foreground the type of subtle messaging being done that we often do not even notice. She even finds a way to make many of these talking head interviews visually interesting, but placing the camera at odd angles, and interviewing her well-chosen experts in locations we are not expecting. By the time we get to the end of the movie – which ends with a montage of many of those deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of the police, we have been primed to expect it – yet the outrage is still there.
13th is an important film – which I hope doesn’t make it sound like homework. I know those types of message documentaries (I’ve heard them called URL docs, because inevitably, in the end credits, there is a website address urging you, the viewer, to get involved). I’ve grown weary of those docs – mainly because they’re never all that interesting or challenging, and the essentially become sermons. That isn’t 13th – which is more important than most of these other message docs, but also better made, more engaging and more infuriating. It is one of the few films I would say is truly essential viewing.