Director: Ava DuVernay
Words matter, which is part of the reason why the last several months have been so infuriating, as so many people with political power and media platforms have refused to call a spade a spade as a man who has built his campaign around racist policies and has explicitly encouraged racially charged violence at his rallies, and implicitly encouraged it at poling stations, runs for President. In an effort to avoid the accusation of "liberal bias," the media has helped cultivate the idea that the two major candidates are equally legitimate as candidates, even though one is basically just a politician - someone that you might agree with or might not, but who at least seems to understand and accept the limitations of power in a democracy - and the other is an insane megalomaniac who wants to curtail the freedom of the press, imprison his political rivals, outlaw a religion he doesn't like, and literally enclose his country inside a wall. Up until a week ago, when the tipping point was apparently reached, finally allowing all bets to be off, even the media outlets calling out the Republican nominee had largely avoided coming right out and calling this what it is, preferring to use terms like "dog whistle" rather than simply say he's racist. Well, he's racist. He's racist in a way that would have given Strom Thurmond pause, and that dude was fucking racist. In this bizarro world of pulling punches, Ava DuVernay's 13th is a breath of fresh air for saying exactly what it thinks. Bracing, thought provoking, and urgent, 13th isn't just one of the most important films of the year, it's one of the best.
Although 13th is a film that ought to be seen (and widely) before the US Presidential election, it's not about Immortan Donald himself, though he does figure prominently, and scathingly, into the film's final section. Lest it be accused of political bias, the film also addresses Hillary Clinton's now infamous "super predators" remark, as well as the damage done during Bill Clinton's Presidency through legislation designed to make him appear "tough on crime." But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. 13th is about the way that the US government has negotiated the existence of its black population since the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery. In 100 breathless minutes, the film runs through 150 years of history, examining the ways and means that slavery has been perpetuated through the mass incarceration of black people and the loss of rights, such as voting, that flows from that, and through the privatization of prisons.
Assembled with the use of talking head interviews with scholars, writers, and politicians, archival and news footage, and broken up into sections that are kicked off with songs from the respective time periods whose lyrics, which the film pauses for a moment to examine, speak to the tenor of the times, 13th unfolds briskly but not superficially as it examines everything from Jim Crow to the Civil Rights movement to the war on drugs to the "three strikes" law and mandatory minimum sentencing to the Black Lives Matter movement and the deaths that inspired it. It's a story told with a great deal of passion that examines both the legislation that promotes continued inequality and the rhetoric that makes that legislation possible. Over and over again, the film comes back to the word "criminal," which it argues has been made synonymous with "black" in order to justify the absolutely staggering rate of incarceration among black men (1 in 3) and, by extension, to justify the way that profits are generated by high levels of incarceration. 13th is very much a film about language and how it can be used as a weapon to distort reality, a weapon that can perhaps only be counteracted by moving images such as the cell phone footage of the deaths of black people at the hands of police, which have occurred in such great numbers that it's become difficult to keep the names and incidents straight, some of which is incorporated into the film in a segment that is brutal and difficult to watch.
13th is very much a film with a point of view which it wears on its sleeve, but it would be simplistic to say that it's partisan. While it certainly goes after the Republican party pretty hard - and how could it not, given that the party is designed to appeal to the interests of a very narrow segment of the population that does not, by and large, include people of color - it doesn't let the Democratic party off the hook, and it is particularly critical of the Clinton administration. The film very strongly argues that the three strikes law and mandatory minimum sentencing exacerbated what was already a crisis and the impression that 13th gives is that Clinton sacrificed the welfare of black communities in order to seem more palatable to centrists and now that the damage has long since been done is apologetic. While 13th is inarguably a deeply political film, it's really not advocating for either the Republican or Democratic parties as it sees both sides as having contributed, nurtured, and benefited from a system that disenfranchises black people and devalues black lives.
For how much ground the film covers, DuVernay nevertheless manages to convey information in a succinct manner, touching on a lot of different nuances of the issues but always bringing the film back to the argument that slavery didn't end so much as it was merely re-branded. It seems self-evident to me that privatized prisons are morally and ethically wrong, as it essentially means that corporations own prisoners, profiting from the labor that prisoners are forced to perform and reap no benefit from, but it's not just the fact that the revenue being generated by prisons has created a subsection of the economy that relies on having a high number of people in prison at any given time that's problematic. The economics of crime and punishment ensures that people who are already disenfranchised will suffer the most as it means that they won't have the money to pay bail and get out of prison while they await trial, won't have money to pay for a lawyer, will plead guilty regardless of whether they are or not in order to secure a short prison sentence rather than risk losing at trial and end up with a decades long sentence, and then will end up with a felony conviction on their record that will make it almost impossible for them to find employment once they get out. It's this targeted punishment that helps maintain racism at an institutional level that the film seeks and succeeds in emphasizing. While there are some who believe that documentaries are supposed to be impartial, it's the fact that the film takes a position in a very direct and unapologetic way that makes it so powerful. 13th is one of the best movies of the year.