Dir. Ava DuVernay
[3 out of 4 stars]
According to the 13th Amendment, “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.” This statement is the premise of Ava DuVernay’s 13th, a detailed documentary about mass incarceration in the United States. The key loophole in this amendment is the phrase “except as a punishment for crime”, i.e., if you’ve been convicted of a crime, slavery and servitude are legal. 13th steps back to examine its implications and argues that, even now, there is a system in place that keeps black people oppressed in this country. DuVernay exposes her evidence slowly and methodically, the facts building on each other – growing like the on-screen graphic that tallies how large the prison population was during each decade – as she forces us to confront the inevitable. These hierarchies of power existed during slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation, but the U.S. prison system is just another form of oppression – and it’s legal under the 13th amendment.
13th walks viewers through a history of race, incarceration, and the prison system in the U.S., from slavery to the present. While some of it is well known, DuVernay goes beyond the basics. She discusses topics from Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith’s 1915 controversial film about the formation of the Ku Klux Klan) and the Southern strategy to ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has enormous influence over how many people are imprisoned) and SB1070 (an extremely strict immigration law), creating a web that traces the history of injustices over time.
Visually, DuVernay often relies on text to convey her point. For instance, whenever anyone in the film says the world “criminal”, there is a smash cut from the interview to this word, projected so that it fills the whole screen, huge white letters against a black background. This term, she argues, is the new n-word, and the visual graphic makes her argument well. However, sometimes her use of text is unneeded. For example, she brings up the power of the visual to shock the world (specifically in reference to Emmett Till’s open casket) yet seems to forget this power at times. Certain concepts are explained by what look like scraps of paper with words written on them taped to a wall, and, during her use of modern rap songs as transition – a tactic she often employs – she projects the lyrics onto the screen, emphasizing certain words. While I understand her desire to focus on individual terms, it seems as though she does not trust viewers to make the connection on their own and needs to spell it out for us. The rap songs, especially, have powerful messages, and it would be more effective to let the words speak for themselves rather than on-screen.
This habit becomes especially frustrating because her visuals are visceral enough on their own. One of the most relevant is an old news clip of Hillary Clinton discussing “superpredators”, an image that DuVernay slips into a montage with no warning or explanation. Yet Hillary’s face is so familiar that we are immediately shocked at seeing it used here. Similarly impactful is the face of Trayvon Martin, projected on-screen after a fade out. DuVernay understands that her viewers will have the emotional reaction to these images that they deserve and occasionally uses them as transitions from one topic to the next. Seeing these faces on-screen has a poignant effect as we consider their powerful implications.
DuVernay also uses sound, particularly voiceover, to create a stunning impact. The film opens on a black screen and a voiceover of Barack Obama echoing through our ears. This distinguished, well-recognized voice comforts us with its familiarity and draws us into the film. A similar effect is achieved by using the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, a voice so iconic we do not need to see his face. These voices locate us in a specific place and time and have the same resonance now as they did when they were first spoken.
DuVernay does not end 13th on an uplifting note. Indeed, this would be hard to do when it is so easy to overlay tape of President Trump with footage of a white crowd harassing a black man. She asks us how we are going to move forward. When black men make up 6.5% of the U.S. population but 40.2% of the prison population, when the odds of a black man being imprisoned in his lifetime are 1 in 3, compared to a white man’s 1 in 17 – how do we respond to the black young man at a recent protest holding a sign asking “Am I next?” The emotional impact of the conclusion made me cry – and I never cry during films. DuVernay inspired me to want to do something, and I only wish that she had offered a more concrete way forward.