Deborah Peterson Small, an activist interviewed in “13TH,” a documentary by Ava DuVernay.Credit…Netflix
NYT Critic’s Pick, Sept. 29, 2016
Powerful, infuriating and at times overwhelming, Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13TH” will get your blood boiling and tear ducts leaking. It shakes you up, but it also challenges your ideas about the intersection of race, justice and mass incarceration in the United States, subject matter that could not sound less cinematic. Yet Ms. DuVernay — best known for “Selma,” and a filmmaker whose art has become increasingly inseparable from her activism — has made a movie that’s as timely as the latest Black Lives Matter protest and the approaching presidential election.
The movie hinges on the 13th Amendment, as the title indicates, in ways that may be surprising, though less so for those familiar with Michelle Alexander’s 2010 best seller, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Ratified in 1865, the amendment states in full: “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.” As Ms. Alexander underscores, slavery was abolished for everyone except criminals. (“13TH” opens the New York Film Festival on Friday; it will be in theaters and on Netflix beginning on Oct. 7.)
In her book, Ms. Alexander (the most charismatic of the movie’s interviewees) argues that mass incarceration exists on a continuum with 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 largely by race.” Under the old Jim Crow, state laws instituted different rules for blacks and whites, segregating them under the doctrine of separate but equal. Now, with the United States having 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, a disproportionate number of whom are black, mass incarceration has become “metaphorically, the new Jim Crow.”
Written by Ms. DuVernay and Spencer Averick, “13TH” picks up Ms. Alexander’s baton and sprints through the history of American race and incarceration with seamless economy. (Mr. Averick also edited the movie.) In its first 30 minutes, the documentary touches on chattel slavery; D. W. Griffith’s film “The Birth of a Nation”; Emmett Till; the civil rights movement; the Civil Rights Act of 1964; Richard M. Nixon; and Ronald Reagan’s declaration of the war on drugs. By the time her movie ends, Ms. DuVernay has delivered a stirring treatise on the prison industrial complex through a nexus of racism, capitalism, policies and politics. It sounds exhausting, but it’s electrifying.
Speed is one reason — you’re racing through history witness by witness, ghastly statistic by statistic — but you’re also charged up by how the movie’s voices rise and converge. It’s like being in a room with the smartest people around, all intent on rocking your world. Ms. DuVernay is working within a familiar documentary idiom that weaves original, handsomely shot talking-head interviews with well-researched, occasionally surprising and gravely disturbing archival material. All these sources, in turn, have been shaped into discrete sections that are introduced with music and animation. Every so often, the animation underscores an interviewee’s point, as in one sequence in which the word “freedom” morphs into flying birds and then the Stars and Stripes and then a slave ship.
With few exceptions, the movie’s voices — including most of its several dozen interviewees — speak in concert. Some (like a galvanizing Angela Davis) are more effective and persuasive than others; at least one — Newt Gingrich, speaking startling truth to power — is a jaw-dropper.
Even with its surprise guests, the movie isn’t especially dialectical; it also isn’t mainstream journalism. Ms. DuVernay presents both sides of the story, as it were (racism versus civil rights). Yet she doesn’t call on, say, politicians who have voted against civil rights measures for their thoughts on the history of race in the United States. She begins from the premise that white supremacy has already had its say for centuries.
Ms. Alexander has been criticized for oversimplifying the origins of mass incarceration in “The New Jim Crow.” This may account for why Ms. DuVernay, in perhaps a bid to pre-empt similar criticism, does include a few divergent voices, including the conservative lobbyist Grover Norquist, who frankly comes off as an exemplar of blinkered power and racial myopia. He pops up in a section on the rise off mass incarceration during the 1980s that’s tied to crack cocaine and the racial gap in arrests and sentencing. Mr. Norquist puts the onus for this disparity on politicians (calling out United States Representative Charles B. Rangel, another interviewee), stating that it had nothing to do with — as he puts it — “mean white people.”
The documentary might have benefited from more articulate jaggedly discordant voices than Mr. Norquist’s to enrich the dialogue and as a reminder of the other views on race, history and the criminal justice system, including those in the mainstream. One popular textbook, “The American System of Criminal Justice,” states that the 13th Amendment “had little impact on criminal justice.” And a booklet on the Constitution, “Know Your Rights,” available through the Justice Department, reads: “The 13th Amendment protects every person in America — all races and creeds, citizens and noncitizens, children and adults — from the bondage of slavery. It is unconstitutional for slavery to exist in any form or by any name.”
Ms. DuVernay forcefully and sorrowfully challenges that confident assertion, tracing the history of systems of racial control from the years after the abolition of slavery all the way to George Zimmerman’s speaking to a police dispatcher about the 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. “He’s got his hand in his waistband,” we hear Mr. Zimmerman say shortly before fatally shooting Mr. Martin. “And he’s a black male.” When this documentary reaches its culmination, which features graphic videos of one after another black man being shot by police, Ms. DuVernay’s rigorously controlled deconstruction of crime, punishment and race in the United States has become a piercing, keening cry.
Ms. DuVernay isn’t the only American director to take on race and the prison industrial complex (Eugene Jarecki’s “The House I Live In” charts adjacent terrain), but hers is a powerful cinematic call to conscience, partly because of how she lays bare the soul of our country. Because, as she sifts through American history, you grasp the larger implications of her argument: The United States did not just criminalize a select group of black people. It criminalized black people as a whole, a process that, in addition to destroying untold lives, effectively transferred the guilt for slavery from the people who perpetuated it to the very people who suffered through it.
“13TH” is not rated. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.