Essays · Movies

Ava DuVernay’s 13th and the Importance of Telling True Stories

In this essay from 2016, Paola Mardo explores the importance of telling true stories as Ava DuVernay did with her phenomenal documentary, 13th.
Th Documentary
By  · Published on October 4th, 2016

As we’ve mentioned before, Ava DuVernay is having a moment. At a time when privileged auteurs are being paid exorbitant amounts of money to helm high concept, spectacle-driven movies utilizing the latest hyper-cinematic technologies, DuVernay is building her film empire on one simple premise: telling true stories. She has done it again in 13th, a bold and educational documentary tackling the evolution of mass incarceration in America, revealing the prison industrial complex as a form of modern day slavery rooted in systemic racism. 13th is leading a wave of subversive films this year, including Justin Tipping’s Kicks and Barry JenkinsMoonlight, that are tackling various facets of the human experience through strong storytelling, and are paving the way for greater diversity both on- and off-screen.

DuVernay is no stranger to documentaries – her first feature was 2008’s This is the Life, an exploration of the alternative hip-hop scene in Los Angeles in the 1990s. Yet 13th is arguably her most ambitious film to date in its in-depth examination of the the timely issue of racism and mass incarceration. DuVernay examines how these contemporary problems stem from the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery except as punishment for crimes, leading to the evolution of modern day slavery through mass incarceration.

The film moves fast as it has a lot of ground to cover, beginning with the slave trade and the civil war, and moving all the way to the civil rights movement, the war on drugs and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Archival footage and testaments from various experts help shape the narrative of mass incarceration and police brutality as deeply rooted systemic problems. Data visualizations like motion graphics and statistics provide further numerical proof to the film’s bold statements. Animated text set to powerful hip-hop and classical music, give emphasis to the criminalization and day-to-day oppression faced by black people in general, and black men more specifically.

There is a moment in the film where DuVernay weaves a montage of footage of the killings of black men in recent years. Oscar Grant. Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Philando Castile. Their names are embedded in our memories and the sounds and graphic images of their deaths are gut-wrenching reminders of the deadly injustices these men faced. But, as activist-attorney Van Jones puts it, these injustices are nothing new.

We see the horrible repetition of history through photos and depictions of lynchings in the colonial era to the physical assaults on black people caught on film during the civil rights movement. DuVernay juxtaposes those same images with attacks on black people during Richard Nixon’s “war on drugs” (which was, in reality, a war on black people) and in recent campaign events for US Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Though assaults on black bodies have happened throughout history, Jones says social media and the internet have allowed people to finally “force a conversation” about these issues and bring these horrific images to the immediate attention of people all over the world, spawning powerful movements like #BlackLivesMatter.

With all its ugly truths about American history and politics, 13th is not an easy film to watch. No one is left unscathed, not even US democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton or her husband and former president Bill Clinton. The film challenges us to face our notions, stereotypes and biases toward black bodies on-screen and in real life.

This year, we’ve seen a rise in films exploring the black experience that touch on various issues from race to coming of age. This summer brought us Kicks, a dreamy visual tale following a teenager on a mission to retrieve his stolen shoes. Set in the Richmond and Oakland neighborhoods of the San Francisco Bay Area, Justin Tipping’s sophisticated first feature depicts a different reality of growing up black in America. Queen of Katwe, Mira Nair’s Disney drama starring Lupita Ngyong’o, David Oyelowo, and newcomer Madina Nalwanga presents Uganda as a colorful world rich with African heroines and no white saviors.

With awards season in full swing, several films are vying for Oscar attention including Barry JenkinsMoonlight, about a young black man growing up and coming to terms with his identity, and The Birth of a Nation, based on the Nat Turner slave rebellion of 1831. The latter has since been tainted with backlash from a 1999 rape case involving Nate Parker, the film’s director, writer, producer and star, as well as his former roommate Jean McGianni Celestin, who holds a story credit on the movie. The film has received critical praise but we’ll have to wait until it’s theatrical release to see if its deafening controversy will influence its legacy, let alone its Oscar chances. Other festival favorites like Loving, Hidden Figures and I am Not Your Negro are also potential awards contenders that address stories about race and the black experience.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Tipping suggests that we might be in “a time of a new American New Wave,” comparing the recent increase in diverse cinematic voices to the period in the late 1960s to the early 1980s where directors like John Cassavetes, Roman Polanski and Martin Scorsese brought new life to American filmmaking. Though the statement is rather lofty, Tipping (who is of Filipino, Swedish and English descent) might have a point. These films feature inclusive casts and represent realities of American life (with the exception of Queen of Katwe, which is set in Uganda) and struggles rarely depicted in such true and accurate fashion on the big screen. Most importantly, they are conveyed through the lenses of directors of color.

In 13th, DuVernay tells the true story, 150 years in the making, of the oppression of black people in America. From D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent drama The Birth of a Nation to television shows like Cops and modern news footage, she reminds us of the power and role of the media in developing the image of black men as criminals or “superpredators.” As stated by several experts, these images and stereotypes led even black Americans to believe they were criminals. But by tracing the history of these prejudices to systemic social problems, DuVernay seeks to change the image of people of color in general, and black people more specifically, in film and in real life.

Along with directors like Tipping and Jenkins, DuVernay aims to take control of the narrative of her community through truthful and cinematic storytelling. And that’s exciting as hell because the point is that it’s not about producing “black film” or creating a “gender-swapped” reboot or inserting a token Asian character. And it sure as hell isn’t about creating comedies that perpetuate negative cultural stereotypes. It’s about finally telling true stories reflective of the world today. That’s what DuVernay and her peers are doing and, if this trend continues, that is what is hopefully to come for directors of other backgrounds and perspectives.

13th releases worldwide on Netflix on Friday, October 7th.

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Writer. Audio/Creative Producer. Columnist, Film School Rejects.