by Ken Bakely
Ava DuVernay knows what she’s doing, in case anyone still doubted that. She builds her new film, the documentary 13th, with firm sure-handedness. A vital, increasingly pressure-packed argument is constructed with utterly precise pacing. This film is the equivalent of a passionate, eloquent speech, delivered with equal measures grace and grief, preparedness and quickness, timeliness and historicity. It is about race, it is about politics, it is about our social worldview, and it feels so very urgent, in just the way it means to.
13th starts with a startling statistic – the United States, despite housing five percent of the world’s total population, is responsible for twenty-five percent of the global incarcerated population. The demographics of American prisoners sway overwhelmingly toward minorities, especially black men. This is a recent phenomenon, DuVernay tells us, an exponential increase which can be traced to policies instated through the latter half of the twentieth century.
Yet there’s a deep-rooted psyche, from a time where our nation, in the years following Reconstruction, saw black men as frightening, uneducated, and aggressive. This preconceived notion never went away, and it continues to thrive to this day. Perhaps it does so in sneaky, diluted ways, but its harmful effects remain all the same. First you have direct, racially motivated propaganda, the film says. A few decades later, you have “three strikes” laws with references to a mystical “super-predator.” Turn the page to today, and you have a political candidate using the phrase “law and order” while complaining that things aren’t how they were in “the good old days.”
DuVernay doesn’t preach her message, and in doing so she sidesteps a common mistake among documentary filmmakers. Instead, she presents it as one would present any other story, through a natural structure delivered through a chronological pattern, poking through every decade for 100 breathtaking minutes. Commentators from all sides of the aisle – from Newt Gingrich to Angela Davis – provide insight. DuVernay films her experts in stark lighting and before sparse backdrops, intercutting these dramatic interview sessions with an endless trove of archival footage.
There is much to be said about a documentary which adheres to the narrative ideals. It allows us to approach the material and engage with it in a way that is familiar to us. It is worth questioning if that familiarity precludes a degree of more daring approaches and the ability for 13th to raise its questions in more interesting ways, but the way DuVernay directs the movie as is makes it hard to overly complain. It’s a film which begins with clips from D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and ends with a montage of police shootings from the past couple of years. This century-wide overview is sweeping, and hard to shake.
13th doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, and seems perfectly content living in comfortable genre territory, but it’s a movie important to see because it provides a discussion that should be had. Perhaps it is a film that we need right now. Above all, this is a documentary with a fairly simple conceit: The Thirteenth Amendment may have disallowed slavery, but the spectres of the United States’ grim past still haunt our society to this day. Wherever there is in justice upon one group, it detracts from our collective ability to live in harmony. Ava DuVernay has a deep desire to communicate this idea, and it’s hard to deny that she does it well.