Review of 13th, Directed by Ava DuVernay

By Jessica Kukla

13th (2016). 100 min. Directed by Ava DuVernay. Starring Angela Davis, Bryan Stevenson, Cory Booker, and Van Jones.

Angela Davis in 13th

“So let’s look at the statistics. The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.” Former President  Obama’s words echo during the beginning of 13th against an eerie gray map of the world that is quickly erased and replaced with just the silhouette of the United States. “Think about that,” he says. His solemn voice is the only thing we hear as black and white jail cell bars fill up the image of the country. The map fades into darkness, leaving us wondering why and how this phenomenon has happened.

Since its release in October of 2016, Ava DuVernay’s 13th has received high praise among the film community and has amplified the discussion of race in the United States. 13th won Best Documentary at both the African American Film Critics Association Awards and Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ EDA Awards. The film was also nominated for Best Feature Documentary at this year’s Academy Awards, although, ironically enough, it went to O.J.: Made in America a series focusing on a black man that didn’t get convicted for his crime.

True to its name, 13th examines the language in the 13th amendment that condones incarceration as a modern form of slavery: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The film moves chronologically through the United States’ messy history, dissecting the roots of institutionalized racism from the country’s origins. 13th also explores the business and profit behind mass incarceration in the United States. It is emotional and tells a complex story by seamlessly blending animated graphics with interviews with high-profile historians, civil rights leaders, and politicians to make a point. DuVernay makes her case in a way that elicits empathy, sadness, and anger to not only understand this complicated issue but also see the cracks in our society that have made mass incarceration of black men and women today’s reality.

13th uses a mix of interviews, archival footage, and photos to create an emotional pastiche. Each era of history is supported by the recollection of historians and survivors sharing their stories with archival footage to provide context and heighten the reality of the situation. The narrative begins with the abolishment of slavery and the beginning of the criminalization of the black man era. The film’s 38 interviews are all breathtakingly shot against beautiful industrial backgrounds that provide interesting textures and angles to reflect the complexity of the issue at hand.

In 13TH: A Conversation with Oprah Winfrey & Ava DuVernay, DuVernay comments that an original focus of this film was to critique the prison industrial complex. However, “it became unreasonable or incomplete telling the story of now without telling the story of the past.” The film’s chronological format makes evident the distinct patterns of systematic oppression. The soundtrack is also used as a powerful transition tool to break up the interview commentary. Showcasing different eras of hip-hop and drawing special emphasis on the emotion of the music’s lyrics, DuVernay helps the audience understand how the same issues are alive in the black community from decade to decade. It becomes clear to the audience that the issue of black incarceration is not a new problem, but one that has taken many different forms and claimed countless victims for centuries.

Throughout the film, we get a sense of DuVernay’s personal attachment to the subject. In every interview we can feel her presence behind the camera, as she elicits eloquent and generous responses. The film tells the story of sensitive issues in experienced by African Americans from some of the most iconic scholars, legal thinkers, and activists in the black community today. Commentary from Cory Booker, Angela Davis, and Henry Louis Gates Jr. create an intriguing and troubling discussion that links history from the Civil Rights Movement to the 2016 election and the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Discussions of specific legislations such as Nixon’s “War on Drugs” initiative and Bill Clinton’s “three-strikes-you’re-out” rule display step by step how incarceration in the U.S. arrived at its current shameful state.

13th is a powerful film that is especially necessary in today’s political environment. While 13th does not end with a call to action, it helps us experience the reality of a situation so that we can engage with the world with less ignorance and more empathy.

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