13th: DuVernay’s Poignant, Powerful, Provocative and Timely Documentary

Poignant, powerful, and provocative, Ava DuVernay’s new documentary 13th is a seminal feature that could not have been more relevant or timely—especially in this combative presidential election year.

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This worthy docu, a must see feature that should be seen and discussed in schools and colleges–hits theaters on Friday, October 7, and it’s also available on Netflix, which produced it.

Considering that its running time is only 100 minutes, it’s overwhelming, both intellectually and emotionally, in the amount of information that it relates not just about its nominal topic—mass incarceration–but about the whole American ideology (and mythology) of race, justice, and equality.

A follow-up to DuVernay’s Selma, the 2014 Oscar-nominated and equally impressive movie, 13th served as the opening night of the 2016 N.Y. Film Fest—the first ever nonfictional work to occupy this prestigious spot.

Among other achievements, the docu puts into broader socio-political context police brutality, racial discrimination, protests by the Black Lives Matter movement, and so on.

I have met DuVernay twice and she strikes me as a filmmaker who is determined to use film art as a social weapon, as a form of political activism.

The movie’s title refers to the 13th Amendment, which, ratified in 1865 (at the end of the Civil War) states explicitly: “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.”

Just before watching the film in a press screening, a colleague gave me Michelle Alexander’s 2010 best seller, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” In her book, the author claims that slavery was abolished for everyone except criminals, and that mass incarceration exists goes back to slavery and Jim Crow.

As one of “the three major racialized systems of control adopted in the United States to date,” it ensures “the subordinate status of a group defined by race.” Under the old Crow, laws instituted different rules for blacks and non-blacks (largely whites), creating segregation and great divide.

Some of the facts are astonishing: the United States, as a sole country, has about one fourth of the entire world’s prisoners, many of whom are black and members of other ethnic minorities.

Written by DuVernay and Spencer Averick, who also served as editor, 13th presents an historical chronicle of race and incarceration, by encompassing politics, economic and criminal policies under various administrations (including Nixon, Johnson, and Reagan) that reflects the modus vivandi of American capitalism and white supremacy as the dominant way of life.

Structurally, the director blends original talking-head interviews with thorough archival footage and visual graphic of basic statistics. The chapters are vividly introduced with music and even animation.

Who are the witnesses?

They range from Angela Davis, who is effectively persuasive to former House speaker Newt Gingrich, whose remarks are revelatory, to conservative lobbyist Grover Norquist, whose testimony is scary (both intentionally and unintentionally) in discussing the rise off mass incarceration in the 1980s due to crack cocaine.

DuVernay traces the systemic and systematic racial control, exercised by white power, over a period of century, from the abolition of slavery all the way to George Zimmerman’s speaking to a police dispatcher about Trayvon Martin. “He’s got his hand in his waistband,” Zimmerman says before shooting Martin, “he’s a black male.”