Few films are released so timely to such a critical moment in history as Ava DuVernay’s 13th. The documentary is a long disturbing history on racial injustice since the Civil Rights Movement supposedly solved racism in the United States. DuVernay’s thesis is that the growth of the criminal justice system is a third form of enslavement to African Americans. First there was slavery, then there was segregation, and finally there is the mass prison system. With two candidates for the White House seemingly representing two completely different Americas, 13th could not be a more relevant film. Donald Drumpf promises to be a “law and order” president. 13th, which opened the New York Film Festival and will be released on Netflix on October 7th, arrives to show what the consequences of “law and order” have been to the black community.
The title refers to the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which ended slavery. However, within that Amendment is a key clause: “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted“. The US today has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prison population. That population is disproportionately African American. Something is happening here. Consciously or unconsciously Americans have built a criminal justice system that is creating terrible social harms.
Ava DuVernay began her film as a study of the for-profit prison system. But as she continued to research, her project ballooned into something much larger. That nucleus of an idea still is inside 13th, but this film has much more ground to cover. 13th now feels like a depressing sequel to her acclaimed Martin Luther King drama Selma. This movie has to cover everything from law enforcement attacks on civil rights leaders to unjust punishments for African Americans in the war on drugs to corporate lobbying for unbearable prison sentences. It is a dizzying and nauseating barrage of terrible detail after terrible detail.
13th is not an easy film. It is not easy to admit that we are repeating the same mistakes as our ancestors.
Writing History With Lightning
Where slavery and Jim Crow were explicitly racist, the prison system today is a much more subtle beast. Nothing in Nixon’s declaration of a War on Drugs or Bill Clinton’s push for mandatory minimal sentences sound like they are targeting African Americans like say, “Coloreds Only” water fountains. Yet the result has been devastating to black communities all the same.
None of these topics are new research. They’ve all been covered before in books and previous documentaries. But 13th is looking to be a mass-market release. It’s a quick summary on post-1965 civil rights issues for a general public largely ignorant of them. 13th is filmed in a very traditional documentary style. Talking heads appear on screen telling the story plainly to the audience. We have a mix of politicians, activists, and historians going over the many topics before a collage of rap music, archival footage, and presidential speeches. 13th looks to be nothing less than a statement of purpose for the Black Lives Matter movement. It needs to use simple language to hit home just how far from “post-racial” we really are.
DuVernay targets easy villains lie Richard Nixon and lobby groups, but the implication is that we are all guilty. In the late 20th to early 21st century only maniacs would admit to being outright racist. Yet racism never truly disappeared. As black communities began to integrate following the end of Jim Crow, white fears created the system we have today. The media builds tropes of terror with terms like “young black male” equating menace. Throw in militarized police forces, the growing fetish for personal firearms, and increasingly callous prison sentences from which there is no escape. The current racially charged climate did appear overnight. We asked for it, we voted overwhelming in favor of it. Now we are paying for it.
So much of the public either cannot see or are willfully ignorant to the divisions that still exist in this society. 13th wishes to leave those people without an excuse. 13th is a movie people need to see to make sense how we got to where we are today. It is as close to a truly essential film as you will find in 2016.
If you’re wondering what Netflix is doing with all the money it is making off Stranger Things and Top Gear re-runs, here you go. 13th is a statement from the streaming service. They are committed to being a destination for filmmaking and important topics. We might all be talking about Luke Cage this weekend, but by next weekend, we should be talking about 13th. It may become the most politically important documentary since Fahrenheit 9/11. With its release just a month away from the election, Netflix and DuVernay might be might be aiming for more than just Academy Awards.