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13th Review: Ava DuVernay’s Powerful and Timely New Film

By  · Published on September 30th, 2016

Ava DuVernay’s 13th is Powerful and Timely

Angry and urgent, DuVernay’s unflinching study of the mass incarceration of Black people in the US is one of this year’s timeliest films.

Ava DuVernay’s engrossing, rightfully angry and unmistakably urgent 13th –which world-premieres at The 54th New York Film Festival tonight as the first documentary to ever open this prestigious Fall event– starts with the voiceover of President Barack Obama, urging all of us to look at our prison statistics. He articulates, with sober and vital perseverance (which is also the unwavering attitude of 13th throughout), that while America makes up only 5% of planet earth’s population, 25% of the world’s prisoners (nearly 2.3 million of them) reside within our prison complexes. This is not just a shocking, gut-punching stat, but also a clever entry into DuVernay’s documentary; a monumental construct of the history of mass incarceration in The United States, and the institution of racism which keeps reinventing itself in various shapes and forms throughout time, within society and the ranks of Government.

13th is astutely complex, overwhelmingly fast and unforgiving in its amount of wall-to-wall stats. That richness is at once a blessing that makes each moment of the film just as crucial as the one that came before it, and a testament to the sharpness of DuVernay as a documentarian. She quickly proves she has no interest in showing the audience a slice of history in an easily digestible, palatable and perishable manner. She instead reaches for a long-lasting visual documentation of history. In fact, her 13th’s urgency comes from not only its timeliness in the era of ‘Black Lives Matter’, but also from its unambiguous timelessness. 13th is a film to see, to see again, and to study for years to come.

The title refers to the thirteenth amendment of the constitution; or rather, the loophole within it that asserts a clear stance against slavery and involuntary servitude, but exempts those who’ve been punished for a crime they’ve been convicted for from the clause. Through each piece of archival footage, statistic and talking head interview (from Angela Davis, Bryan Stevenson, Van Jones, to Newt Gingrich, Cory Booker, and Malkia Cyril, there are many public figures, politicians and activists she interviews), DuVernay methodically shows the far-reaching impact of that particular loophole and the role it played in justifying the mass incarceration of people of color in this country systemically and consistently. 13th displays with cold hard facts, that, right after slavery ended, it began all over again, when masses of black people were arrested for minor or false crimes, and sent inside the prison system with a stain that would follow them around for their entire lives and a burden that would trickle down to future generations.

13th Trailer: Ava DuVernay Examines the Evolution of Slavery in America

The early moments of 13th are dedicated almost entirely to D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, how it painted a menacing portrait of the black man as “cannibalistic and animalistic” and became instrumental in the rebirth of Ku Klux Klan. The film bridges The Birth of a Nation’s cultural impact with conservative policies of the later decades effectively and convincingly, and portrays the domino effect of the deeply-rooted racism in a rousing manner that evokes a swelling sense of anger (and embarrassment) in the viewer. The film’s perhaps most central argument arrives when the timeline of 13th reaches to the era of Civil Rights movement and beyond. DuVernay shows, with meticulous precision, that a rhetorical “war on drugs” worked itself into politics and the public’s collective conscience in the Nixon era, and took a real, literal turn under Reagan’s presidency with the “Just Say No” campaign, which Nancy Reagan spearheaded heatedly. By turning a public health crisis into a criminal issue (a subject that was also powerfully depicted in Eugene Jarecki’s documentary The House I Live In back in 2012), our prisons, which went through a privatization and became profit-making systems following Bill Clinton’s crime bill, filled with men and women of color who were convicted of minor drug-related crimes, erasing generations of potential leaders from communities. In the film’s most devastating and infuriating moment, we get to hear an audiotape of Lee Atwater, President Richard Nixon’s former advisor. He basically admits (after a casual “don’t quote me on this”), that several racially-biased policies knowingly contributed to damaging the image of African-Americans in the eyes of the white public. And the culmination of these policies were readily bought by the American people.

DuVernay’s film, while operating on a traditional formula of talking heads and archival footage, swiftly rises above the limitations of this often-used convention. She sets up her interviews against stylish and industrial-looking backgrounds (brick walls, staircases and metal window casings, among them) and uses music and graphics to empowering, even chilling effect. One of the words that repeats throughout the film as a title card, CRIMINAL, (in all caps) visually and economically represents the repetitive vicious cycle of systemic criminalization of African Americans. With this word, DuVernay centers, refocuses and challenges her viewer repeatedly, while holding their collective pulse in her hands.

In the end, 13th makes a powerful case that today’s American society, with the dangerous rise of Donald Trump and several well-documented/filmed cases of police violence against black people and communities, is a direct byproduct of decades of systemic racism that ferociously disabled and hampered people of color. You will walk away from 13th with reasoned fury and a renewed sense of purpose. Because, as DuVernay’s timely film rapturously reminds us, systemic racism is far from over. It’s the same monster today, just in a different disguise.

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.