The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb speaks, in a still of the Ava DuVernay-directed documentary “13th.”
Racial injustice is one of the founding elements of the United States, and the instances that sparked the #BlackLivesMatter movement add on to more than a century of concrete proof. But for many people outside of this context, it doesn’t go far beyond a basic understanding of slavery, Jim Crow, current headlines and the harrowing statistic of the U.S. taking up five percent of the worldwide population and a quarter of the world’s prisoners. The history behind such a system is a lot to unpack, but filmmaker Ava DuVernay (Selma, Queen Sugar) attempts to do just that with her new documentary 13th, which clearly shows how we got there — and why the nation’s largest prison strike that started this past September has merit.
DuVernay is known for her short films in Hollywood, and even though 13th is a feature length film, it’s almost like a short when considering how much she’s covering: in less than two hours, DuVernay covers hundreds of years of the United States’ criminal justice system, dating all the way back to slavery. The title is a reference to the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery — for all citizens except convicted criminals. Using an assortment of experts, video footage, photos and audio recordings, DuVernay breaks down one of the more complex systems of American history in a way that is relatively linear and easy to understand. The documentary covers slavery and Jim Crow first, where the seeds of what The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb describes as “mythology of black criminality” were planted. It then gets into more detail about how the war on drugs, mandatory minimum sentencing, political motives from both sides of aisle and financial incentives have built the criminal justice system and militarized police state as we know it today.
Each time the documentary enters a new decade, DuVernay shows how the incarceration rate from the decade before increased as new bricks of legal injustice were added. The statistics are just numbers with a Google or Wikipedia search, but seeing the timeline and the intricacies of the system adds a tenseness that makes the circumstances even more tangible. Definitely a must-watch for your Facebook friends who insist that systemic racism isn’t real or worst… no longer exists.
After Selma’s success in the black community and the film industry with Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations, DuVernay has clout — and she uses it, enlisting some of the country’s most educated and experienced minds when it comes to race and law. Cobb, Angela Davis, Henry Louis Gates and Van Jones bring academic and media star power to the documentary, using decades of research (and in Davis’ case, experience) to illustrate the way race and the criminal justice system have been connected. But prisoners-turned-activists are granted just as much screen time, with DuVernay staggering out speakers’ name and title introductions throughout the film at different times. it feels like a humanizing act in itself, making sure viewers see these people for the value and information they bring to the documentary instead of instantly labeling them as ex-cons. The documentary also has comments from district attorneys, politicians like Newt Gingrich and a representative of ALEC, an organization the documentary exposes as corrupting the relationship between politics and corporate interests. Together, all of them tell a story that doesn’t only illustrate the history of the prison industrial system, but makes the viewer question how they define what a criminal actually is.
The tail end of 13th is perhaps the most chilling. It tells the story of Kalief Browder, who was sent to Rikers Island, an adult prison, at age 16 and spent three years serving time (much of it in solitary confinement) without ever standing trial or being convicted of a crime. He was released in 2013, and died by suicide in 2015. It also plays audio and video footage of the police shootings and killings of the names we’ve heard so often over the past few years: Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Oscar Grant and others. DuVernay received permission by each victim’s family to portray the footage, and while tough to watch, they’re an important addition to the film. After more than an hour of seeing these pieces of the system explained, seeing named black bodies victimized by racism and police brutality, 13th adds a deeper level of reality and humanity to the film’s research, and also gives context to the videos that we’ve seen on our cell phones and computer screens.
With a nationwide prison strike going on, numerous #BlackLivesMatter protests, an impending presidential election and a conversation on race that’s having everyone evaluate how they see the country, Ava Duvernay’s 13th is as timely as it is timeless.