There’s really no coming back from a documentary as furious, focused, and immediate as Ava DuVernay‘s 13th. The title comes from the 13th amendment, which serves as it’s starting-off point for a convincing, well-researched, and concisely presented assemblage that suggests that the mass incarceration of black Americans essentially allowed slavery to continue in this country. This is not entirely new terrain for the cinema and a sizable portion of the information and statistics imparted will be familiar to those who have been educated on these matters, whether through experience or otherwise. Nevertheless, by the end of DuVernay’s documentary, there is a sense that something crucial has been uncovered and discovered about how America denies or ignores the problem of racism, even if the facts were always there and readily evident to anyone who looked.
DuVernay’s roster of interviewees is vast and smartly curated. Regular New Yorker reporter and professor Jelani Cobb speaks eloquently about how the Southern economy quickly became reliant on funds gathered from arresting and jailing black Americans; famed activist Angela Davis talks about the events that lead to her being tried as a criminal; The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander expounds on statistics about incarceration and the lack of ideas from any American leader to remedy its effects. The filmmaker brings in far less sympathetic figureheads like iconic conservative consultant Grover Norquist and Newt Gingrich as well. These men may agree with elements of DuVernay’s overriding thesis but also make sharp reminders that most of their beliefs are rooted in capitalism first and foremost. There’s also a member of ALEC who comes off like the very definition of a corporate stooge.
To their credit, neither Norquist nor Gingrich comes across as if they were brought in simply to show evidence of inclusion, a way of giving some semblance of an argument from the other side of the aisle. The discussion that DuVernay wants to have may not be as prevalent in the Republican party but it involves both major parties as well as those in between. Indeed, the term at the center of DuVernay’s film is one that both sides invoke regularly in their campaigns and daily speech: Criminal. When the word is uttered by Alexander or Bryan Stevenson or Henry Louis Gates Jr., DuVernay cuts to a chalkboard-like black screen with the word writ large, as if to see how the word looks on its own, away from any context.
At other times, DuVernay throws up lyrics from “Chain Gang” (the Nina Simone version) or Killer Mike’s unforgiving “Reagan” onto the screen in the same way, in a way of highlighting how the words express the state of being black in America. And “criminal,” too, means something much more than the dictionary definition, as DuVernay meticulously reveals through a kinetic, enthralling barrage of inarguable evidence. Each point, from statistics about the growth of our incarcerated population to a depressing reminder about the amount of public defenders who are white, is stated clearly and confidently and lands like a jab to the chest. DuVernay builds an enrapturing, unpredictable rhythm between these revelations, lingering on certain facts and then rattling off a dozen or so leveling dispatches from the lives of black Americans.
DuVernay’s wondrously analytical film covers a lot of ground in a relatively short amount of time, beginning right at the passing of the 13th amendment and ending with Donald Trump’s rallies. The director repeats one video at essentially both ends of the film, a video of a black man she referred to as “Dignified Man,” who is pushed and harassed by a mob of white supremacists but attempts to continue to make his way to wherever he’s going. Towards the end of the film, she juxtaposes this video with an eerily similar video from a Trump rally. DuVernay means for this to be as much a cautionary tale as it is a vast yet intimate history of active oppression, repression, and resistance.
It’s worth noting that though the movie begins with the passing of the 13th amendment, the first major subject is a movie. The popularity of The Birth of a Nation, as Cobb, Stevenson, and others explain, could be seen as the perfect reflection of American society’s attitude towards race, but also a prognosticator of how the murder of black men would become justified. This is as much a movie about why DuVernay became a director as it is a movie about the systematic enslavement of African-Americans in jails, where they are often required to give free labor to major corporations. The importance of the cameraphone is a particularly passionate point toward the end, but DuVernay’s utilizing of so many different kinds of visual formats, from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver segments and C-SPAN feeds to local news clips and scenes from 12 Years a Slave, suggests a passion for the power of the camera in all its myriad forms.
This same passion can also be felt in the tremendous sweep of 13th. DuVernay said that she wanted to place most of her interviewees in settings that reflected labor – exposed brick, extensive glass work, etc. – and even this seemingly minute decision is potently felt throughout the film. Even if one were to attempt to ignore the tremendous social good and overdue fury that DuVernay’s masterwork provides, 13th is a unique pleasure to watch on strictly visual terms. And it’s that element that makes the filmmaker’s message all the more pronounced. This could have been a mere collection of statistics, stories, and facts but there’s an intimacy and immediacy to each utterance, each pause, that comes directly from DuVernay’s stunning visual artistry. In the process, she’s made what is easily the most important movie of this or any other year.
In a bold move, DuVernay includes videos of the killings of several black men by police officers, including Eric Garner and Philando Castile. She also plays the audio of the call George Zimmerman made when he followed and murdered Trayvon Martin. These videos are open domain, owned by whoever shoots the video, and free to use by anyone, ultimately. DuVernay marks that she got permission from the families of the victims to use the videos, rather than just use the videos and stay separated from the material. It’s a heartfelt act that reflects the tremendous empathy that underlines each scene in 13th, as well as the empathy that it demands from its audience.
Of the many reasons to celebrate 13th, the pleasure of seeing and hearing these historians, intellectuals, and activists would rank high on the list. For a movie that devotes quite a lot of time demonstrating how black men are often represented in the media as violent, bestial offenders and, again, criminals, the very fact that DuVernay has gathered an esteemed line of black men and women that defy that notion is something of a rebellious act. Between this act and the damning, nuanced case against mass incarceration she makes in 13th, DuVernay has gone beyond crafting a call for a rebellion. With this masterpiece, she’s calling for a revolution.
13th will debut on Netflix on October 7th.