The following essay was written by a participant in the 2016 New York Film Festival Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring critics co-produced by IndieWire, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Film Comment.
Movies, like all works of art, aren’t composed in a vacuum — they reflect their culture as much as they help shape our tastes, desires, and perceptions of others and self. And so, early into Ava DuVernay’s “13TH,” its message is undeniable: image is everything. The documentary, which was released on Netflix on October 7, swiftly frames the importance of how black people, especially black men, are seen by their dominant culture. And so, while the film references the constitutional amendment from which the film gets its namesake, the most chronologically salient point is the impact of D.W. Griffith’s infamous “The Birth of a Nation.”
Still, while “Birth” is undoubtedly a product of early 20th-century cultural values, DuVernay and her panelists believe the portrayal of blackness as more than a skin tone. Blackness is a more a degenerative condition, a dormant threat, and a blight on American progress. “Birth” spoiled how whites saw their fellow citizens, many of them freed from chattel slavery a generation before. The movie scenes that DuVernay expounds on (via her collection of academics, activists, and pundits) portray a white man in black face, eyes wide, lurching like a neanderthal. (The white woman he stalks throws herself off a cliff rather than bear the weight of being assaulted by a Colored man.) The other scene referenced: whites rejoicing over blackfaced predator’s public lynching. Griffith’s thesis on black ontology was as horrifying as it was persuasive. “Birth” shadows black humanity would be interpreted, vestiges that black Americans still deal with today.
The power of black imaging is essential to understanding “13TH.” While plenty of exposition on the discriminatory and overly punitive legislation exists, the time spent on “Birth” tells its audience that those laws emanate from a much older notion of black criminality. The major political players in what we now know as “mass incarceration” wouldn’t be in office without a majority of American voters believing their platform and vision. Enough people had to locate black proximity as a latent danger to their safety to believe in the need for “law and order.” As Malkia Cyril, founder and Executive Director of the Center for Media Justice, notes in her interview, one of many that comprise the narration in “13TH,” even black people bought into the narrative they were told about themselves. Blacks and whites had the same nightly news parading images of black criminals, the same movies in their cineplexes, and in many cases, drew the same conclusions. This is not an accident.
Just a week ago, Donald Trump echoed those Nixonian appeals, promising to be a “law and order” president. In an August speech made to a predominantly white crowd, he implored black voters to choose him, painting a decrepit existence cursed with failing schools and rampant poverty. Soon after, he advocated for law enforcement bodies across the country to restore stop-and-frisk, a policy that incentivizes police to target people using a profile of blackness that so happens to be the raison d’etre of “13TH.” Trump’s campaign isn’t lost on DuVernay and her interview subjects. (Although Newt Gingrich is a vocal Trump surrogate, he is heavily featured in the film and appears sympathetic to the film’s argument for criminal justice reform. Still, he’s an obvious exception to the consensus.)
One of her most artful uses of black image, a clip she informally called the “dignified man” in a post-screen Q&A, shows a black-and-white newsreel of a black man, peacefully walking down the street as whites shove and kick him, hurling threats. The man, dressed in a suit and top-hat common for the time, is spliced with footage from a Trump rally, harkening to the good ol’ days. Synchronized visuals of black protesters, past and present, newsreel and YouTube, black and white and vivid living color, assaulted all the same, make Trump’s dog whistle audible to anyone with ears to hear.
Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” offers a harmonious comparison; his story exists in the shadows of the frayed masculinity. Though cinematically, it could not be more different. It’s a narrative film, heavily stylized (the production values of “13TH” are intentionally low-frills) and dependent on vibrant tones, its characters exist in the same universe, scarred by familiar depictions of black manhood. The main character, Chiron, is haunted by the same realities — his primary context for judging his masculinity are the vicious bullies from his Liberty City, Miami home, the boys chase him through the heart of the drug corner. Chiron copes with his life under the oppressive specter of an over criminalized community, a hood that responds to high school crime with grown man imprisonment. Even more challenging for Chiron is an emerging understanding of his queerness — it’s the main reason he’s abused, why he feels more accepted in the cut than by his mother, and why most of the story’s first two-thirds focus on his descent.
The third and final act reveals how black boys and men shape Chiron’s chosen identity. By adulthood, he fashioned himself from the raw material of every black male image he’s seen. Trevante Rhodes’s full grown Chiron is the spitting image of Juan (Mahershala Ali), a compassionate drug dealer that protected him from his childhood bullies. He has the same low Caesar haircut and drives an identical lowrider. He doesn’t have Juan’s signature gold teeth, but he flaunts an even gaudier grill. Rhodes’ jacked physique — Chiron grows bigger than his mentor, who as also quite chiseled — is remarkable considering how lithe Rhodes’ actor counterparts, Alex R. Hibbert and Ashton Sanders were were when playing his child and teen selves.
Sadly, he also takes after Juan’s hustle, leading a drug ring in Atlanta. However, unlike his affable and compassionate mentor, there’s glimpses of a ruthless dealer, as intimidating to his henchmen as his school age bullies were to him. Though he’s moved to a new city, he’s settled for the vision of manhood his peers cast when they chased him through the Liberty City traps. He’s strong, imposing, the kind of man that “13TH” tells us Americans have been conditioned to fear. It’s no surprise that when Chiron drives back home, Jidenna’s anthemic “Classic Man” blasts from his speakers. For better or worse, he’s a classic man, too.