13th is One of the Best Movies of the Year

Ava DuVernay's follow-up to Selma, 13th, is a stunning documentary about the historic roots of mass incarceration and an absolute must-see.

13th opened the New York Film Festival to thunderous applause Friday night, galvanizing audiences with the kind of urgency that should echo all the way to awards votes next year—and hopefully with just as much imperativeness to all other voters in a month. In her documentary follow-up to Selma, Ava DuVernay has delivered a sincere triumph about the systematic and historic injustice of mass incarceration, and how it endures as a bipartisan failure.

The picture will also soon be easily accessible around the globe since 13th premieres on Netflix on Friday, Oct. 7. However, this is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, the picture will be readily available to millions of viewers who lack the access, ability, and/or desire to go to an art house theater; on the other, this is such a tremendous achievement, which deconstructs the elusive but persistent evolution of a special kind of American bigotry, that it can only be at its most profound on a vast projected screen that dominates all senses.

13th takes the ambitious goal of drawing a straight-line from the constitutional amendment that ended slavery—which the passage of served as the centerpiece for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln—all the way through Jim Crow, segregation, the “War on Drugs,” and finally the result where, as of 2010, over 2,266,800 Americans were imprisoned, 40 percent of whom are black despite the fact that African-Americans only make up 13 percent of the overall population.

DuVernay’s talent is that she deftly and meticulously deconstructs these statistics into a blunt showcase of how race has always been at the forefront of American life, even if the way we address it as a culture simply changes generation to generation. Each time her documentary moves further along in time, the numbers of incarcerated Americans according to U.S. censuses change, the musical tones shift, but the sound of inequality remains.

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There is a brief overview of Jim Crow and even the power of cinema when the original Birth of a Nation (1915) invented the image of a burning cross while almost single-handedly resurrecting the Ku Klux Klan in the 20th century. However, the main focus begins with when the incarceration spike first occurs around 1970, two years after Richard Nixon utilized the “Southern Strategy” for the benefit of Republicans.

Through a series of race-based political dog whistles, Nixon made good on LBJ’s premonition that he had lost the American South for the Democratic Party for a generation (it turned out to be more than that) by signing the Civil Rights Act. With terms like “law and order,” Nixon offered a reprieve to older white voters sick of Vietnam War protests, Civil Rights marches, and, frankly, the Civil Rights Act itself.

“Criminal” and “crime” became as coded for politicians then as “thug” is readily used today. The documentary thus slides smoothly, like a clanking barred door, through the timeline, from Nixon first uttering a “war on drugs” to President Ronald Reagan making it a major policy, and then to President Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill, juxtaposing his impassioned pleas, and Hillary Clinton’s utterance of “super-predators,” with their newfound disdain in 2015 for a piece of legislation that enshrined mandatory sentencing into federal courts, and helped double the incarceration rate in this country in less than 20 years.

Yet, lest Republicans take any solace in seeing Hillary Clinton’s past come back to haunt her, it is immediately contrasted with Donald Trump taking out a full-page ad in the New York Times circa 1989 to demand the death penalty be reinstated for five teens (four of whom were black and one Hispanic) charged with raping a white woman in Central Park—DNA testing proved over a decade later that they were wrongly accused and convicted.

Yet, one of the documentary’s greatest strengths is that, beyond whom is being discussed, a large and eclectic variety of people agreed to participate in the discussion. Displaying the clout Selma earned DuVernay, the director said after the press screening that she got everyone she wanted for the documentary. This included esteemed academics and members of the African-American community including like Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Angela Davis, as well as remorseful voices recollecting bad choices that were ostensibly meant to improve the lives of black communities.

Rep. Charles Rangel speaks with an almost wistful regret for helping pass anti-drug laws during the Reagan years that made crack cocaine (a drug favored in poorer, urban communities) far more heinous and serious a felony than the wealthy’s preference, powdered cocaine. Curiously, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich also talks to DuVernay with a sense of disappointment about these decisions. One wonders how he’d square away in 30 years that he said the first black president engaged in a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” worldview.

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More amusingly, the political arguments over the infamous “Willie Horton” campaign ad from the fall of 1988 were re-litigated in cross-cutting by DuVernay with Van Jones arguing about the implicit racism of using the image of a black man convicted of rape and murder while Grover Norquist dismissed this as a liberal issue of defending blatant criminality. DuVernay’s own opinions are quite clear as she astutely cuts between the original context of the ’88 commercials with scenes from D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation where a black Union soldier attempts to rape a white maiden.

All of the interview sessions are shot in wide angles that show less talking heads and more individuals occupying large spaces of exposed brick and stately glass, suggesting living in a world built on the labor of the repressed.

The best portion of the film is, however, less a history lesson than a glimpse into an insidious element of modern political culture. 13th devotes about 10 minutes to methodically breaking down the effects of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a nonprofit group that prides itself on being made up of state legislators (mostly Republicans) and private sector “representatives.” These represented businesses can include companies like ExxonMobil and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the latter of whom is the largest company for private prisons in the U.S.

With partners like these, state legislators who are members of ALEC helped introduce and pass legislation for laws that led to more privatized prisons, stricter mandatory sentencing, and even “Stand Your Ground” laws, which infamously led to cases like the tragedy of Trayvon Martin. These laws, sometimes submitted with actual ALEC letterhead to different state assemblies, continued to increase mandatory sentencing for nonviolent crimes across the country.

Strikingly, DuVernay has a Maryland state senator and proud member of ALEC defending the cozy relationship of corporate leaders schmoozing (and often writing) out legislation. He ably states that ALEC no longer supports mandatory sentencing laws and is actually working to decrease mass incarceration. The documentary then juxtaposes announcements of ALEC’s newfound morality with the fact that CCA is no longer a member of the organization, but the American Bail Coalition (ABC) is. While ALEC’s effete spokesman talks about the new love for supporting parole opportunities, another ABC spokesman addresses ALEC about how if they are helping give Americans a second chance with their new patented ankle monitors, his fellow ALEC members wouldn’t begrudge him making “a dollar” off the said opportunities.

It’s incredulous.

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Of course, what most folks will be interested in is how the film would almost seem to throw a plague on both houses in regards to the current presidential nominees, however that is not the actual case. While both Clintons’ depiction of young black men in the media of the early ‘90s comes back in uncomfortable focus, the picture lingers on a section of the modern unrest in this world, from Ferguson to the 2016 campaign trail. For several minutes, the film pauses on Trump not just reuttering Richard Nixon’s “law and order” pledge, the same coded words that helped birth the Southern Strategy, but most specifically his refrain of “in the good old days.” Each time DuVernay includes a cut of Trump saying, for instance, “In the good old days, law enforcement acted a lot quicker than this,” she would contrast shots of Black Lives Matter protestors being hit by Trump supporters to law enforcement officials opening fire hoses on Civil Rights protestors in the ‘60s.

When Trump says, “In the old days [protestors would be] carried out on stretchers,” footage of black men carried away in stretchers would be included. As Trump protestors defend punching men in the face in North Carolina, clips of racists continually knocking a hat off a black man trying to walk by in the ‘60s accompanies the visceral uneasiness.

This is a definite political viewpoint that’s a snapshot for Americans on the eve of the most toxic presidential election in at least a generation. The timeliness of this fact—as the election will be over about a month after the film’s release—was addressed by DuVernay in a press conference following the screening.

“Will it still be relevant next year when we know which one of the candidates [will be president], is it still going to be relevant 10 years from now?” DuVernay rhetorically asks. She then answers this by pointing out 13th might have more historical importance a decade from now, “because he’s taking this country to a place that is going to be long-studied, considered for a long time. It’s going to have repercussions past this moment, regardless of whether he’s the president or not… And so, we need to remember this moment, just like we remember the Bush-Dukakis race. It gives us context to this moment we’re in, looking through the lens of race and culture.”

And indeed, much of 13th succeeds so powerfully because it adds a startling context to these issues. Often, defenders of the status quo, or those who even wish to go back to Trump’s proverbial “good old days,” like to argue that America’s racial tensions in 2016 are happening in a vacuum. That Black Lives Matter and protests against police shootings of unarmed black men are a phenomenon brought about by the media or, preposterously, the country’s first black president. However, 13th succeeds by tracing its historic lines in sharp, crimson red pen marks. The only serious critique I might even have is the fact that the actual 13th Amendment excepting that the seizure of rights and freedom “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” does not likely seem to be an implicit loophole to maintain slavery, which the film ambiguously seems to suggest.

With that said, the historical straight line of imprisoning people of color as a substitute for the Jim Crow laws and lynching tactics that had, in turn, replaced slavery is ably and convincingly made by 13th—to the point of outrage. In context, what is happening now, the film proves, is no different than when photographic images of the whipping scars endured by an escaped slave named Gordon incited a new abolitionist fervor in the Union right before the Emancipation Proclamation, or how the images of men and women being chased by violence on a bridge in Selma changed apathetic minds in 1965. So too do smartphones now provide a sudden retina-displayed vision of injustice. 13th includes many of these videos as well, but unlike most news reports, expressly with the consent of the families of the deceased (which DuVernay displays in text over each killing).

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Still,13th is about more than simply cultural injustice in 2016, or even in the last 40 years due to laws that have intentionally increased incarceration and the definition of “criminality;” it is about a fabric of the country that persists from Jim Crow to the 2016 election and beyond. And it should be there for Oscar season too.


5 out of 5