Director: Ava DuVernay
Released on Netflix 10/7
When Ava DuVernay’s Selma was shut out of the Academy Awards it prompted backlash with the #oscarssowhite hashtag that lead to changes within the voting system of the Academy. Selma was a superior biopic with strong central performances and a resonant, timely message. The failure of recognition it received, especially in comparison to weaker, similar films like Theory of Everything and Imitation Game, was enough to enact actual progress in the system. DuVernay is now hard at work on A Wrinkle in Time, a big-budget sci-fi that stars actors of color in the lead roles. Before DuVernay moves to sci-fi, she has directed what may be the most important documentary of the year: 13th.
13th is named for the 13th amendment that abolished slavery. What you likely don’t know is that there is an exception to that amendment: Except as punishment for a crime. Meaning, slavery is constitutional if you’re a criminal. What follows is the constantly evolving systematic of black Americans, and especially black men. 13th does the job of drawing a through line from slavery, through reconstruction, to Jim Crow, crack/cocaine, superpredators, and today: where the US houses 25% of the world’s incarcerated population despite only having 5% of the world’s population. The land of the free has more people without freedom than any other nation on the planet.
How did we get here? Through a series of intercut interviews with different experts ranging from activists, academics, politicians, and more we follow the ever-changing face of oppression through 150 years. This is not a partisan picture, as equal shots are taken at Nixon, Reagan, the Clintons, and Trump. It is shown how racism has shifted into different words and ideologies to cover the face but not made it any less subversive to our ideas of equality with words like “Law and Order” and “tough on crime” becoming essential to the American political lexicon. The film is helpfully structured by periods of time that also follows the exponentially growing number of imprisoned Americans, which makes it easier to keep track of the waterfall of information.
You could produce several documentaries under the umbrella of what 13th covers. It could be a 10 part mini-series. What DuVernay has done here is make a swift, 90 minute film that rivets with stories and information, as much as it upsets and shocks. Following slavery the south criminalized blacks at an alarming rate for minor infractions (vagrancy) creating a prison population that could work the jobs that slaves used to work for even cheaper wages. Films like Birth of A Nation showed blacks as criminals and rapists, and Jim Crow criminalized equality in the South. Presidents like Nixon and Reagan created laws that punished minority communities harshly for minor crimes (think of the difference for the slap on the wrist for cocaine, vs. the 10 year sentences for crack in the 80s). Prisons began to be privatized (something the supreme court finally declared unconstitutional this year) and contracts demanded they be full. The war on drugs, the three strike rule, and the militarization of the police force are all covered as being a part of the problem.
It’s always laudable to make an important documentary that is compulsively watchable. This never gets bogged down or melancholic. The tone is thoughtful at times, and full of righteous anger in others. Pundits from the other side (politicians, representatives of businesses profiting from the system) have the chance to tell their side, and rather than be combative, they are allowed to talk, and given enough rope to essentially hang themselves. This is due to the position being mostly indefensible. To remedy this mass incarceration of citizens, prison labor, and overrepresentation of people of color within the correctional facility we will have to move beyond “being tough on crime.” If DuVernay’s previous films are any indication this may get the conversation started.