Film Review – 13th
Film is the most powerful art form in the world. It instills in us a level of empathy for others from all different walks of life. At its best, it makes us reconsider things about humanity and hopefully helps us grow into better versions of ourselves. There is no better example of that than in Ava DuVernay’s powerful documentary, 13th (2016). This is one of the best films you’ll see not just this year, but of any year. DuVernay jumped into the public eye with Selma (2014), but it’s here where she has entered the pantheon of great modern filmmakers. She has made a searing, detailed exploration of racial inequality as seen through the prison system. Racism is the defining black mark of this country, a wound that has not healed in the few hundred years of America’s existence. While some deny it and others refuse to acknowledge it, DuVernay addresses the racial problems that have plagued our society head on, tackling it without hesitation.
This is more than your typical documentary. DuVernay addresses her central theme not so much through a conservative or liberal viewpoint, but more from a humanistic, emotional stand. Her interviews include historians, college professors, social activists, and politicians from both sides of the isle, all of whom agree that there is a big problem within the justice system that is geared against people of color, specifically those from the black community. Noteworthy is the interview conducted with Newt Gingrich whose insight, eloquence, and candor about racial inequalities may throw off some people from both sides of the political spectrum.
DuVernay traces the problems of racism all the way back to the ratification of the 13th amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Ratified in December 1865, the amendment effectively abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. However, there is a loophole in the amendment that is the foundation of DuVernay’s argument. Section 1 states:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
It’s the phrasing “except as a punishment for crime” that has been exploited as a means to suppress minorities. In a society and culture that has a deep history of discrimination it’s this particular phrase that the doc maintains has lead to modern race relations and the explosion of the prison population.
The case that DuVernay and her team makes in drawing this line is incredibly thorough and detailed. It’s not that she shows people simply spouting emotionally charged statements, but she methodically takes her time, going step by step to show how racism has continued throughout the years since slavery. It’s an incredibly impressive feat. Since southern whites could not force black people into slavery, they needed a way to economically recover from the Civil War given that cotton picking was the major source of income. This bred a perception of criminality toward black people. By injecting a level of fear into society, those in power can facilitate more black people into imprisonment, forcing them to work the land in chain gangs. This perception was solidified by the media in newspapers, drawings, and early film. DuVernay puts a magnifying glass toward D.W. Griffith’s silent epic, The Birth of a Nation (1915). While undoubtedly a technical feat, that picture strengthened white people’s fear of black people by portraying them as animalistic murderers and thieves (on the flip side, it portrayed southern whites – particularly members of the Ku Klux Klan – as heroes).
The juxtaposition of criminality and the black community has lasted to this very day. People’s fear is a powerful tool to manipulate; it can cause them to turn from intelligent members of society into raving mobs. DuVernay does not back away from showing us the gruesome photographs and video footage of white mobs at lynchings, violent reactions to Jim Crow laws and the Civil Rights Movement, all the way up to the acts of police brutality that has invaded the current societal landscape. One interviewee points out that discrimination and violence has always been present, but now with the advancement of technology more and more of these events are being recorded and seen around the world. The amount of information we’re given is overwhelming.
The connection between racism and the prison system is so strongly established that it would take a massive overhaul to untangle it. Some may argue that while there may have been some wrongful imprisonments in history, not everyone that goes to jail is innocent. That is entirely true, but the numbers DuVernay describes shows a shocking disparity against the black community. While being less than 10% of the entire U.S. population, black people make up 40% of the prison population. One in every three black males will see some prison time in their lifetime. That is simply staggering. DuVernay does not pull her punches when it comes to placing the blame. She puts the spotlight on just about everyone involved: from President Nixon establishing a “Law and Order” approach to crime as a response to the Civil Rights movement, to President Reagan and his war on drugs, to President Bill Clinton and his “three strikes” initiative and mandatory sentencing laws. Combined with the rise of corporations benefiting from the labor of inmates, the result is a justice system that is set up against the very civilians it claims to protect. The idea of “innocent until proven guilty” has historically been shown to not be the case. This is a system that hands out stricter sentences to those that claim innocence compared to those that profess guilt (even if they never did anything wrong).
Even with all of the evidence presented, DuVernay’s great accomplishment with 13th is in her ability to tap into our emotions. She understands that words and numbers have significance, but it’s through our empathy that she really makes the film shine. The doc is divided by sequences of hip hop and soul music, with the lyrics shown in big bright white lettering against an all black background. I found these bits to be heavy handed but effective, as though DuVernay is nailing her message down, using the musical interludes to drive her point home.
Understandably, 13th doesn’t have an answer to the problems it lays out, if it did then I’m sure someone would have put those solutions into play already. Is there an answer to bigotry and the escalating prison problem in America? I don’t know – I hope there is but the issues and obstacles are so complex that it can’t be held within a little movie review. But I was moved by the passion and urgency that DuVernay lays into every frame of this film, she obviously cares about this story and does a good job at bringing the viewer into the framework she wants to establish. In an election year where social unrest is a hot point of conversation, 13th comes blazing in with near perfect timing. There are movies that help us escape the troubles of everyday life, but there are those that shake us to our core and ask us to face those troubles directly. 13th is not just great, and it’s not just important – it is necessary.