Director: Ava DuVernay
In 2014, talk show host Montel Williams successfully petitioned to get 12 YEARS A SLAVE into the American history curriculum for public high schools. His reasoning was quoted as, “this film uniquely highlights a shameful period in American history, and in doing so, will evoke in students a desire to not repeat the evils of the past, while inspiring them to dream big of a better and brighter future.” His pursuit is a noble one, and Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning film is a necessary tale that captures the brutal nature of the American slave trade through a single, powerful story. Unfortunately, Williams’s statement is indicative of a fallacy upheld by the majority of Americans — that slavery ended with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Ava DuVernay’s new documentary, eponymously titled 13TH, shows that it did not.
DuVernay’s film opens with a statement by President Obama on America having the highest prison population in the world (both numerically and factorially), accompanied by a stark black and white animation. It then proceeds to chronicle as much of America’s post-bellum racial history as possible in 100 minutes. The doc’s expansive timeline has a single clause of the 13th Amendment, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” as the central reason for the indentured servitude millions of black Americans have continued to endure at the hands of the prison-industrial complex since being emancipated by Abraham Lincoln. Essentially, if they can convict, they can enslave. Legally.
After Hillary called LINCOLN a “masterclass,” I early voted for Trump
This film is full of shocking moments (I audibly groaned upon realizing I was only 23 minutes in — there was a lot left to stomach) and, being a social issues doc, has a multiplicity of factoids and statistics — such as the fact that one in three black American men see jail time. However, DuVernay’s massive cast of scholars, historians, activists, and politicians avoid didactically spitting numbers at the audience; instead, they’re intent to draw a throughline from D.W. Griffiths’s racist opus THE BIRTH OF A NATION to the start of the Black Lives Matter movement. The picture of how racism has progressed in America is painted so crystal clear, it feels like the deliberate design of an individual — the fact that it’s systemic is all the more disturbing.
This calculated feeling stems from DuVernay’s direction, as she functions as close to an auteur as one can in a nonfiction piece. In fact, the narrative is so tightly made, it raises eyebrows at just how documentary the film is — especially considering that DuVernay and editor Spencer Averick share writing credit on a doc that lacks voice over narration. A heavy hand aside, nothing here is fabricated; other than the recurring animation from the opening that’s used as a transition between decades, the film is entirely comprised of primary sources. High profile interviewees Newt Gingrich and Angela Davis speak over a plethora of always-relevant stock footage — which DuVernay accentuates with title cards that border on the subliminal. The interviews are captured in a modern two-camera style that often frames the subject so low and off-kilter that it appears as though DuVernay is reflecting racial oppression with how she composes the shots of her colored interviewees.
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The dialogue contains a wealth of information and DuVernay is able to cram a semester’s worth of knowledge into a feature length format. Because there is so much ground she attempts to cover in America’s racial past (a disheartening fact in and of itself) there isn’t much in the way of balance. The main oppositional voice comes in the form of Republican senator Michael Hough, a proponent of ALEC (look it up). In an excellently edited sequence, DuVernay pits Hough and political scholar Marie Gottschalk in a makeshift debate without them ever occupying the same frame. Imagine which one ends up looking like a bumbling idiot.
Not an exercise in subtlety or nuance, 13TH is exactly the film one expects it to be. This shouldn’t serve as a reason not to watch, as there’s no American that wouldn’t benefit from seeing it. For the majority of the population, it should be made required viewing as a devastating wake up call. Even for those sufficiently enlightened, DuVernay’s masterful presentation of subject matter that’s this bleak will come to be known as the contemporary blueprint for issue-centric documentaries. Destined for critical praise and awards, this film won’t be truly successful unless its message catches the public’s attention. Most depressing of all, despite Ava DuVernay’s valiant efforts, even if white, pseudo-liberal Hollywood hands her an Oscar for Best Documentary, there will still be over two million Americans behind bars, victims of the plague of mass incarceration.