13TH feels like a culmination of Ava DuVernay’s career to this point. The documentary brings together the racial and social history of Selma, her years of work as a documentarian, her stint as a journalist, and even her undergraduate degree in African-American studies. The result of this combination of disciplines is one of the year’s most important documentaries, one that has a longview historical/academic lens yet never loses its activist sense of urgency.
It’s impossible for 13TH to not feel urgent. Just think of all the unarmed black men and black boys killed by police this year alone. There’s a reason #BlackLivesMatter has such resonance. The current system devalues black lives and targets the black community. It’s nothing new. In a sense, slavery never actually ended.
[This review originally ran as part of Flixist’s coverage of the 54th New York Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the DOC NYC Short List screening of the film and American Histories discussion panel. For tickets and more information about DOC NYC, click here.]
Director: Ava DuVernay
Release Date: October 7, 2016 (Netflix)
DuVernay’s central thesis is that while the 13th Amendment ostensibly abolished slavery, the systems of oppression in the 1800s evolved into different forms of oppression that are currently in practice today. It’s a compelling argument that begins with the Reconstruction Era following The Civil War, in which imprisoned black men were used as labor to rebuild the south. It continues into segregation and Jim Crow, the war on drugs, the Republican’s Southern strategy, and so forth. DuVernay is expert at cycling various ideas, phrases, and images throughout 13TH, which helps make her overraching argument cohesive.
13TH generally follows a linear and chronological crawl through 150 years of American history, intercutting archival footage and talking heads. Our guides through history include activists (e.g., Angela Davis), academics (e.g., Henry Louis Gates Jr.), commentators (e.g., Van Jones), and politicians (e.g., Senator Cory Booker). While the primary draw of 13TH is the outrage at a corrupt criminal justice system, formal touches contribute to the riveting watch. The settings for each of the interviews, for instance, are often industrial spaces that evoke the feel of jails and prisons. DuVernay withholds identifying many interviewees until their third or fourth appearance on screen. I don’t know why that seemed so novel, but I was hanging on people’s words a little more that I might have been.
There are a few contrarians among the interviewees who don’t think systemic racism is a problem. Of course they’re white dudes. Surprisingly, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich isn’t one of these clueless white guys. Gingrich appears in 13TH and says that many white people don’t understand what life is like for black people in America. I may not agree with his politics, but credit goes to Gingrich. He’s relatively more woke than some people I know.
13TH is predominantly concerned with mass incarceration and how the prison population increased dramatically through the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. It’s neat and brisk through most of its 100-minute run time, though it becomes loose once we focus on the mid-2000s to today. From prison privatization we then cover issues of police militarization, the rise of Black Lives Matter, and even (perhaps unavoidably) Donald Trump’s ugly rhetoric in the Presidential race. (Trump makes an earlier appearance when he calls for the execution of The Central Park Five.) If she wanted, DuVernay could have made a mini-series out of this, or a long-form doc in multiple parts a la Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America.
DuVernay’s such a skilled cinematic essayist that she’s able to rein in 13TH even as it seems to stray. I mentioned her cycle of ideas and images earlier. Just when I felt like the movie was moving off track, she would reintroduce an idea or an image to show why one particular point is a reticulation of a previous one. The death of Emmett Till haunts the deaths that gave rise to Black Lives Matter. Phrases like “law and order” take on a sinister quality. The idea of the black man as a rapacious criminal similarly casts its unending shadow.
The most memorable recurring image in 13TH involves a black man in a suit and hat. It must be from the 1950s. He’s walking through a suburb. There’s a mob of angry white men around him. They shove him. They yell at him. He gets punched in the back of the head. But the black man keeps walking. He’s being insulted and assaulted, but he’s carrying on unphased. During a press conference, DuVernay referred to this anonymous person as “the dignified man”. I don’t know where he was walking or if he got there, but I hope he made it okay. I hope everyone does somehow.