Overview: 13th is a documentary that connects the institution of slavery to the current level of mass incarceration of black people in America. Netflix; 2016; Rated R; 100 minutes.
Hazy Shade of Criminal: Drawing its title from the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery in the United States, Ava Duvernay’s 13th asserts that the institution of slavery is maintained in the modern structure of incarceration of America, and explores the cultural values that have allowed racism to sustain itself since America’s inception. DuVernay draws a direct line from the institution of slavery to the issue of mass incarceration in the United States, using the dehumanization of black people as a connecting thread of American history that has not faded from our culture.
Opening the 54th New York Film Festival (both the first documentary and the first film directed by a black woman to do so), 13th received nearly universal acclaim. The film’s focus is what has likely elicited such a strong response from so many viewers; 13th does not tiptoe around its point. It is direct, informative, and it is almost disturbing the ease with which it can support its point.
Generational Trauma: This is ultimately an educational documentary, not an exposé. DuVernay chooses to zoom out rather than in. It focuses not on unfit prison conditions or the details of a specific trial or piece of legislation, for example, but gives an overview of the history of mass incarceration, beginning with the abolition of slavery and ending in the present day. The film does not aim to expose any hidden truth that Americans aren’t at least somewhat aware of, but rather connects what some may see as a reformed nation with its own terrifying past, and reveal that America’s past is not behind us.
13th allows the viewer to see cause and effect clearly and understand how and why the dehumanization of black people is such a cultural touchstone, and more interestingly, the way all Americans are complicit in this culture of criminalization. 13th places the blame not exclusively on hate groups or certain political parties, but on politicians, media and news organizations, filmmakers, private companies, and American citizens in general, to varying degrees. “If you look at the struggle of black peoples struggles in this country,” says Jelani Cobb, writer and interview subject, “the connecting theme is the attempt to be understood as full complicated human beings.”
Form and Function: The sheer number of interview subjects is impressive, and they vary widely, both in their occupations and vantage points. From politicians and congressmen, to formerly incarcerated activists, to professors and authors, the interviewees are all knowledgeable on different aspects of the criminal justice system, race, and history, and provide different points of view.
The format of the documentary contributes to its clarity: there are no extemporaneous aspects to this film, all the musical lyrics, images, and archival footage and images relate to the theme, and reflect American culture. Music in particular, both modern and decades-old, all relating to ideas of criminality and the defense of black humanity, and show the way the criminality and dehumanization of black people permeates black culture over time.
There are no cluttered academic offices in which the director conducts interviews, no examination of artifacts, no voiceovers from the director, and no tours of prison facilities. Interviews are conducted in sparse, often subtly prison-like environments. This sleek and simple aspect reflects the clarity of the structure, and 13th allows the viewer to focus on the facts and issues at hand.
New Slaves: The timing of this documentary is integral to its effectiveness. As discussions of implicit bias and police brutality are moving further into the forefront of the political stage, 13th gives these issues historical context. Admonishing the effects of legislation passed under Presidents Reagan, Nixon, and Clinton, and showing clips of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump touting similar language, shows the way values entrenched in racism have yet to fade from mainstream political rhetoric. The juxtaposition of clips of Donald Trump speaking of “law and order,” with clips of Nixon speaking of law and order in terms of the war on drugs that led to increased criminalization of people of color, demands a response from the viewer.
13th shows the irreparable damage of mainstays of American justice such as the war on drugs or overrepresentation of black men as criminals in news coverage, and shows contemporary manifestations of these same ideas, and almost dares us to not be disturbed by the way the most embarrassing aspects of American history are not behind us.
Overall: DuVernay’s years of experience as a documentary filmmaker is undeniable in every aspect of 13th,, from its structure to its visual style. There is so much information covered, but every clip, every interview, every image included contributes to the film’s unified purpose. The subject matter seems worthy of a series of films, due to the density and wide-spanning time frame of its subject matter, and the very nature of the way this information is relayed encourages the viewer to learn and understand in more detail about of each of the historical moments it describes. 13th is succinct, extensively researched, and convincingly displayed, and demands that we address and accept that racism is undeniably a part of America’s past and present.
Featured Image: Netflix