Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13TH” has the precision of a foolproof argument underscored by decades of frustration. The movie tracks the criminalization of African Americans from the end of the Civil War to the present day, assailing a broken prison system and other examples of institutionalized racial bias with a measured gaze. It combines the rage of Black Lives Matter and the cool intelligence of a focused dissertation. DuVernay folds many historical details into an infuriating arrangement of statistics and cogent explanations for the evolution of racial bias in the United States, folding in everything from D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” to the war on drugs. The broad scope is made palatable by the consistency of its focus, and the collective anger it represents.
Visually, the movie offers little more than the standard arrangement of talking heads, archival footage and animated visual aids, but that’s all it takes to make its incendiary statements resonate across time. While not the strongest filmmaking achievement of the year, it’s certainly the most relevant — a scattershot survey that consolidates some 150 years of American history to show how the country’s current problems with race didn’t happen overnight.
“13TH” is a natural fit for Netflix, which will find an immediate audience for this topical subject matter in homes around the country. But it’s even more appropriate for DuVernay, whose career speaks with increasing volume to the challenges facing minorities today and their roots in the past. “13TH” is a dense, chronological overview that fits in naturally with DuVernay’s breakout narrative feature “Middle of Nowhere,” which involves an incarcerated black man, and her Martin Luther King Jr. biopic “Selma,” providing a sober-eyed context to the dramas they capture.
The title stems from the 13th amendment, which has been celebrated for abolishing slavery despite one troubling loophole that birthed a century and a half of persecution. By allowing forced labor for convicted criminals, the amendment enabled an angry, resentful white society to imprison newly freed slaves on minor charges — and, with time, enhance the perception of black criminality that continues to reverberate today.
The 13th amendment isn’t the only numerical element driving DuVernay’s essayistic approach. Onscreen statistics track the dramatic rise of incarceration numbers in the United States, from some 513,000 people in 1970 to 2.3 million today, pairing them with the widely-circulated assertion that one in three black men will go to prison in their lifetime. While that’s hardly groundbreaking information, “13TH” presents the talking point in a historical framework that gives it renewed power.
“13TH” is equally effective at outlining the minutiae of regulations that enable the oppression of black lives on multiple levels. Many of the movie’s subjects single out the American Legislative Exchange Council’s pre-written bills often used to enhance racist agendas, such as the Florida “Stand Your Ground” law that let George Zimmerman get away with killing Trayvon Martin. Going one step further, DuVernay’s collection of professors and activists explore the collusion between ALEC bills and the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which benefits from harsh sentencing laws such as mandatory minimums that bolster the company’s prison business. Viewed in these explicit terms, the systemic racism emerges as undeniable fact.
“13TH” laces these precise targets with broader cultural observations underpinning society as a whole. DuVernay finds the “fear of black bodies” echoing across several eras, from the aftermath of the Civil War (captured in devastating black-and-white photographs) through the entire 20th century. While some of the transitions are blunter than others, DuVernay’s most effective device assesses the role of Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” in creating a triumphant narrative of white power that still haunts perceptions of black identity.
But the sturdiest ingredient in “13TH” is the testimony from people who clearly know what they’re talking about. Eschewing the distraction of celebrity activists, DuVernay instead turns to shrewd explanations from experts on black struggles. There may be no better voice for those concerns than the elusive Angela Davis, who has rarely appeared on camera since her early days in the Civil Rights Movements, but here provides a series of searing remarks about the systematic development of black criminalization.
With Richard Nixon’s drug war, she says, “crime came to stand in for race,” a perception that ossified in the Reagan years. Henry Louis Gates Jr. emphasizes the Civil Rights Movement’s ability to turn the problem of black arrests into a potential solution, while the professorial Jelani Cobb deconstructs “the mythology of black criminality.”
DuVernay pads these remarks with a few too many musical interludes to flesh out the 100-minute running time. It’s questionable whether we really need a break to read a few lines from Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype.” But such minor structural issues, along with an abrupt ending, have little relevance in a movie primarily concerned with getting its point across in sharp intellectual terms. More polemical statement than cinematic achievement, “13TH” resonates where it counts.
Although its selection as the first documentary in history to open the New York Film Festival struck some as an odd decision, “13TH” is right on target to capture the tenor of recent narratives on black life. The movie kicks off a program that also includes Raoul Peck’s brilliant essay film “I Am Not Your Negro,” which fuses an unfinished James Baldwin manuscript with contemporary footage of the racism at the center of his critique. The lineup also includes Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” a personal tale of a young man who feels trapped by his black gay identity. (Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” didn’t make the cut at NYFF, but it also falls into this robust package.) DuVernay provides the big picture for all of these stories.
Coupled with an election campaign that explicitly addressed systemic racism, “13TH” is a true movie of the moment. Many of its observations also crop up in “I Am Not Your Negro,” where Peck also unearths racist portraits in popular culture and their impact across society. “White people did not act the way they did because they were white, but because of some other reason,” Baldwin writes, and “13TH” diagnoses the many causes. While not the most uplifting statement, it strikes a triumphant note by simply demystifying its concerns. Viewed as a whole, these movies explore the past and present not as separate moments, but as a single fluid pathway riddled with struggles — and always moving forward.
13th opens the 54th New York Film Festival. Netflix will release it on October 7.