13th is the sort of film that shouldn’t shown in cinemas. It should be shown on Netflix. It shouldn’t be shown on TV. It should be public domain. It should be shown in classrooms across the United States, even across the Western world, where many of the same oppressive racial structures described therein exist albeit in differing forms. Ava DuVernay’s documentary is one of the most powerful works of filmmaking I have seen for a while. It puts forward an argument with such force, fire, and weight of physical, statistical evidence that it perversely becomes a thing of beauty; the sharp, clear lines of the debate as laid out by the film are a thing to behold.
The opening statement of the film’s argument is based around the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which officially abolished slavery across the country. Except there was a loophole: one was only free if one was not a criminal. Cue one hundred years of lawmakers in the US doing everything in their power to criminalise (and therefore re-enslave) black people in the US. 13th goes from this point onwards through the early twentieth century with the release of D. W. Griffith’s influential and hugely racist film The Birth of a Nation, segregation, the Civil Rights Act, and then finally to the culture of mass incarceration and the war on drugs that has been one of the principle foci of US political culture since the 1970s, started by Nixon and exacerbated subsequently by Reagan and Clinton.
DuVernay deals very specifically with how new laws were written that effectively criminalised black communities in the US, bringing together an array of (mostly) eloquent talking heads, many of whom are professors, activists, and politicians deeply involved in the subject at hand. To my very pleasant surprise, even Newt Gringrich has some intelligent things to say on this issue, at least based on what appears in the film. There are a handful of dissenting voices, but their arguments fall down at the slightest of scrutiny, and its particularly fascinating to watch how DuVernay and her talking heads lay out the argument that capitalism, mass incarceration, and racism all go hand-in-hand like a country-wide feedback loop.
The detail in the film is such that there were many elements or sides to this argument that were left overlooked by the film, instead being only implied. A particularly interesting one was the fact that many of the changes that most brutally damaged black communities via the American justice system were politically-motivated, in the sense that Presidents, governors, senators, and congressmen enacted them specifically in the hunt for votes.
They found messages that seemed to work, playing on the general fears and anxieties of the public. The legislation that they then enacted, sometimes with good intentions, was poorly written and had far-reaching consequences that higher scrutiny would have stamped out. Science, research, expert advice, these seem to fall by the wayside in many democracies, as the fickle, simplistic, uneducated will of the ugly majority comes to the forefront (see: the unquestioned support for both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Brexit, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil). 13th accidentally seems to suggest that the writhing mass of humanity is not yet ready for democracy, certainly not within a capitalist framework.
But that argument is for another film to make. 13th is an incredible work. Go watch it.