Review: Ava DuVernay's '13th' is a potent examination of race and the criminal justice system
Ava DuVernay’s 13th was the first-ever documentary to be chosen as the opening film for the prestigious New York Film Festival, and watching it, it’s hard to question that decision.
The Selma director’s film (which is available to stream on Netflix Instant on Friday) derives its name from the 13th Amendment and its opening segment “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except in the punishment of a crime…” It makes the case that slavery was not abolished so much as replaced, in particular by the criminal justice system and mass incarceration.
Many of the points made in the movie will already be familiar to anyone aware of the topic. But the film weaves together so well, and the overall message so necessary, that it remains a vital work.
13th’s timeline starts around another movie, D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist epic The Birth of a Nation. It argues the film’s villainous black characters, combined with its enormous commercial success, helped popularize the stereotype of blacks as criminals. (Indeed, this is actually a stronger repudiation of that film than Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation.)
From there, it skillfully threads all the other attempts to conflate “black” and “criminal,” from the mass arrest of civil rights protesters to the increasing incarceration of blacks for increasingly minor charges. In Reagan’s War on Drugs, charges for cocaine primarily used by wealthier whites were less severe than those for crack more available to the poor and people of color.
And as the film points out, this was a bipartisan movement. Special scrutiny is paid to Bill Clinton and the 1994 crime bill he signed into law, with its mandatory minimum sentences and “three strikes” law resulting in life sentences for three-time felons (including non-violent crimes), heavily contributing to our increased prison population.
Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both make unflattering appearances in the film — the former for her comments calling black youth “super-predators,” and the latter for his calling for the death penalty of the eventually exonerated Central Park Five, as well as a scene that intercuts the treatment of protesters at his rallies with civil rights-era blacks being attacked.
It also covers several contemporary aspects of the criminal justice system, including American Legislative Executive Council’s ties to prison companies and the wielding of lengthy prison sentences to encourage taking plea bargains. It’s a lot for a single film to tackle, but DuVernay connects all these threads into a clear-eyed, coherent work.
It helps that she has a strong roster of interview subjects, ranging from professors and intellectuals like Jelani Cobb and Henry Louis Gates Jr. to politicians like Sen. Cory Booker and Newt Gingrich. The latter’s comments are especially surprising, arguing that cocaine-crack sentencing and blacks’ treatment in the criminal justice system are unfair.
The format is fairly conventional for a documentary, mostly featuring talking-head interviews and archive footage. Occasionally the film is broken up with black-and-white animated graphics and mini-lyric videos for politically charged artists ranging from Nina Simone to Killer Mike.
The arguments also may feel familiar for anyone who’s read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, who appears as an interview subject in the film. But for those who are less well-versed on the subject, or those just looking for a skillfully composed treatise on the topic, it’s absolutely worth watching.
And in its closing scene, featuring footage of blacks killed by police including Oscar Grant, Eric Garner and Philandro Castle, it makes a visceral, visual argument that a book or article can’t. For those who dare argue we live in a post-racial society, it’s the final rejoinder in a film full of them.
Director: Ava DuVernay
Running length: 100 min.