13th (2016) by Ava DuVernay
Review by Andrew Swafford
Ava DuVernay’s documentary about mass incarceration is a voice singing out clear, loud, and true. 13th presents the facts, unembellished by drama or sensationalist pathos, and the truth alone is enough to ring in the ears of the American consciousness unbearably until meaningful change provides us with a different world. This is only true if we listen, of course--but DuVernay here has maximized her ability to be heard, through ironclad argumentation, potent filmmaking craft, and (significantly enough) ease of access.
When reviewing Lo and Behold (Werner Herzog’s documentary about the internet) last month, I took issue with the fact that the ideas and facts presented in the film seemed too scattershot and disconnected, never lining up to form a coherent shape. The exact opposite is true about the information contained within 13th, which lays out its argument with such concise and purposeful logic that I believe anyone--even the least #woke among us--would be able to follow its line of argument.
13th deliniates American history from 1864 to 2016 as a constellation of racial exploitation, starting with the titular constitutional amendment, which technically abolished slavery, but left one enormous loophole still gaping: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude [shall exist], except as a punishment for crime.” DuVernay emphasizes the way in which White Americans, who had been economically dependent on Blacks as human capital for decades, immediately began looking for ways to frame Black people as criminals in order to get backbreaking labor done cheaply by chain gangs and, later, prison-based manufacturing lines. For the remainder of the film, DuVernay fills the screen with the word “CRIMINAL” almost every time it comes from the mouth of one of her talking heads, illustrating how a new, universally acceptable version of social damnation has arrived to replace racial slurs that have since become stigmatized and unacceptable
From that first point of reference, written into the US Constitution, DuVernay draws a straight line through 20th century American popular culture and electoral politics. Her next stop is 1915’s Birth of a Nation (which mythologized the stereotype of the monstrous black criminal--and which we analyzed on Episode 96), and then to Richard Nixon’s response to the Civil Rights Movement (specifically his “Law and Order” rhetoric, the Southern Strategy, and the ADMITTED racial underpinnings of his fear mongering about drugs), and Ronald Reagan (who brought Nixon’s theoretical war on drugs into existence and rapidly expanded prison systems and militarized police forces), as well as Bill Clinton (whose “Three Strikes” and “Mandatory Minimum” policies made the final nail in the coffin for Mass Incarceration), finally ending with the world of today (exploring the phenomenon of Black Lives Matter, highlighting corporate influence in politics, and exposing both the historical culpability of Hillary Clinton and the violent threat of Donald Trump). By the end of the film, a clear image emerges of the American narrative in the context of race and political policy, with each piece of evidence building on the last and culminating in a much larger sense of weight and horror than any single event on its own.
By presenting this laser-focused and factually bulletproof line of reasoning through such a historical lens, DuVernay tackles our country’s racial divide in a way that completely does away with easily-dismissed ideas about White people being hateful and mean, and instead focuses on institutional racism as a fundamental component of American capitalism, which has always relied on exploitation of cheap labor, whether in the form of slavery, outsourcing, or for-profit prisons. Social racism--which we like to pretend ended in the 1960s--is merely a means of legitimizing that system, DuVernay’s film argues. In the words of Ta-Nahesi Coates, “race is the child of racism, not the father.”
DuVernay has the facts on her side, and the way she chooses to deliver them is effective, despite being fairly conventional. The film’s information is primarily delivered through talking heads, but they’re compelling and prestigious ones, from academics like Michelle Alexander (whose book The New Jim Crow popularized the ideas that DuVernay’s doc is based on), media pundits like Van Jones, politicians like Newt Gingrich and Corey Booker, as well as historical powerhouses like the one and only Angela Davis. What makes these talking head shots unique and visually interesting, however, are the locations in which DuVernay chooses to film them. The wisdom of Angela Davis is captured in a cathedral, Gingrich is in a high-rise office with a sleek modern decor, and Senator Corey Booker is in a red plush throne of sorts. Most of the film centers around the academics and mass incarceration experts, however, who are surrounded by hard concrete walls and metal gates, which give the film its overall stony grey aesthetic that perfectly compliments the subject matter. Seeing distinguished professionals of color trapped in these hard, punishing environments feels wrong, as it is meant to.
Another unique characteristic of DuVernay’s documentary style is the choice to punctuate certain sequences with bursts of musical typography, tying in slave spirituals like "There’s a Man Going Round Taking Names” and hip-hop anthems like Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe The Hype” to show how the visceral experience of institutional racism has been reflected in Black art. Some viewers might find moments like this corny, but I think the musical montages were incredibly valuable additions to the film (as Spike Lee’s use of musical typography did in last year’s Chi-Raq), not only breaking up the monotony of interview sequences, but also as a means of reaching viewers through more than one mode of communication, letting people see the pain that is often ignored in popular music that comes from Black artists. While watching 13th (as well as while reading Alexander’s New Jim Crow) I was often thinking about Kanye West’s “Crack Music” and how well its lyrics and musical tone work to connect the worlds of drug addiction, electoral politics, and musical creativity. DuVernay’s film often accomplishes the same thing, which will allow her message to be not just recieved, but also seen, heard, and felt by those whose primary method of comprehending political realities has always been music.
However, in addition to all the ways in which the film’s structure, content, and style are compelling and persuasive, I also think one of the most crucial elements of DuVernay’s 13th is the method by which she chose to release it. This was the opening film at this year’s New York Film Festival, and it could have easily gone on to travel the trajectory of a typical prestige picture, opening slowly in art-house theaters around the country before taking home a trophy at the Academy Awards and maybe being shown in college classes in the years to come. Ava Duvernay instead chose to distribute the film solely through Netflix alongside the release of Marvel’s Luke Cage, which may result in the film being taken less seriously on the awards circuit (I can understand why DuVernay would be uninterested in this, considering the snubbing of Selma and David Oyelowo was one of the most important catalysts for the #OscarsSoWhite phenomenon), but will certainly result in the movie being seen by more people--especially those who have little interest in attending art house theaters. This is the audience that needs to see 13th--the American public at large--not just the academic intelligentsia or the world of professional film critics. As stated, this is a voice that needs to be listened to by the American consciousness at large, and whether film critics like it or not, that ear is most efficiently reached through Netflix.
13th is one of the best movies of the year, and Ava DuVernay is, in my eyes, one of the most interesting filmmakers to be keeping tabs on right now. The idea that a filmmaker who just shot to superstardom (like, there’s-a-Barbie-of-her superstardom) with a Martin Luther King biopic would turn around to make a documentary leaning heavily on historical fact and straight-up exposing the entire American political system as a white-supremacist system of covert slavery is one of the most bold and brave moves I can imagine. This movie also recontextualizes her earlier work in interesting ways: Selma is now much more interesting considering the way DuVernay here frames MLK as a wanted criminal fearing for his life every day; her second feature film, Middle of Nowhere, centers around a relationship that has been displaced by the criminal justice system--the emotional side of the film resonated with me when I first saw it, but only now am I considering the vast political implications that it likely has to offer upon rewatching. DuVernay’s next project--a Disney-produced adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time--is infinitely fascinating to me as well, as DuVernay has cast the sci-fi novella’s supernatural beings as multiracial (Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling) and the central family of siblings lost in the cosmos as Black. This is a brilliant way of highlighting the absence of any racial codifiers in the text itself and also allows the story’s focus on a mysteriously absent father and government conspiracy to take on previously unconsidered meaning.
All of her projects have been interesting and compelling on a cinematic level, but it wasn’t until 13th that I realized the extent to which DuVernay is an inspiring voice of power and autonomy in a Hollywood system that so often exists to perpetuate pre-existing norms. To quote Coates again, “this country’s criminal justice policy…[wasn’t] imposed by a repressive minority…[it was] the product of democratic will.” DuVernay’s documentary, now available to the most mass audience possible, communicates clear, loud, and true what must be communicated to said mass audience in order to broaden the cultural consciousness and help construct a new democratic will.
In today's landscape of film criticism, calling a film "important" is perhaps the quickest way to get it dismissed by potential viewers. But if it were ever appropriate to label a film as "important," it's in the case of 13th.