“We have to understand before we can move on,” states an interview subject early in Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th.” The movie does just that by establishing a baseline of knowledge among people who watch the film. There’s no title cards before the closing credits trying to funnel viewership into political action. In fact, we are more likely to feel complicit in our silence than empowered with our activism.
I’ve seen “13th” twice now, once before the election and once after. Among the many films that I have rewatched in the wake of Trump’s victory, this is the one that feels to have changed the least. That’s a huge credit to DuVernay’s laser-sharp focus on her thesis that the past 150 years of America’s prison system is a reincarnation of slavery thanks to a loophole in the titular Constitutional amendment. She did not try to predict the future; in fact, both of 2016’s major party candidates make appearances in archival material that their campaigns would rather have buried. Instead, DuVernay casts her glance backward at the structural and institutional conditions that allowed “crime” to become a proxy war against black Americans.
“13th” shows less of the inside baseball of politics than the standard political documentary, although some invisible actors like the FBI and ALEC do get properly chided. DuVernay opts to look at cultural flash points such as D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” which fueled the popular image of black men as indolent indigents, and George H.W. Bush’s infamous dog-whistling Willie Horton campaign ad. These are important to examine both in their creation and their adoption. Were Americans willing to wholeheartedly dismiss these negative images as propaganda, perhaps we would not be in our current situation. But we didn’t, as recent events have shown, and our country may be forced to refight some of the battles that appear settled or reversed by the Obama administration.
But to talk about “13th” purely in terms of content does a disservice to the great artistry that DuVernay brings to the project. The documentary is far more than just a sleek presentation of introductory poli-sci college seminar material. She’s reliant on talking heads to convey the history of American penal injustice as well as to editorialize, yet she usually does not display the subject’s name or affiliation until they have spoken several times. The effect allows us to build up trust and judge their words before we can write them off based on their qualifications. (She also shoots some wonderfully dynamic interview framing, conveying mood and motion along with information.)
DuVernay repeatedly confronts us with the word “CRIMINAL” in big block letters every time the word is uttered. It’s a call to consider the term not as a person but as a construct, one that has been weaponized specifically against one group of our fellow citizens. True, it is technically race-blind. But we must understand that its conceptualization does not align with its practice in order to correct a systemic imbalance in our country. A- /