The documentary centers on the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution – the amendment that abolished slavery, but also in turn put into motion an ugly tradition of the apprehension and incarceration of African-Americans; a problem which persists, very publicly, to the present day. The first section of the amendment declares that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist in the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The film wastes no time explaining how the practice of mass incarceration to disenfranchise the black community in the nineteenth, twentieth and now twenty-first centuries.
Black men in particular have been portrayed as violent and dangerous people through slander and propaganda, and the documentary demonstrates that one of the earliest achievements – for lack of a worse term – in feature cinema is drenched in racism and bigotry towards African-Americans. DuVernay usefully details how in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), white actors in blackface commit violent acts and even attempt rape. What many consider a landmark in the visual medium is actually one of the most atrocious pieces of racist media to ever be produced. Racism and representation in film have been inextricably linked right from the inception of the form, and DuVernay joins a tradition of filmmakers attempting to combat this linkage.
DuVernay assembles a chronological and thorough history of race in the United States; the documentary covers slavery, the Civil Rights movement, the war on drugs and the Black Lives Matter movement as well as a plethora of other pertinent topics and events. The overwhelming amount of information offered is not a hindrance to its narrative success, but is in fact the strongest attribute the film has. DuVernay provides a storyline that we’ve all heard pieces of before – but it has never felt this cohesive in film form. It is frightening to observe the myriad currents of racial discourse in American history that have brought us to our present state of conflict. Because of its mix of thoroughness and topicality, DuVernay has undoubtedly produced the most important piece of non-fiction cinema in recent years.
The 13th is such an involved and informative piece, it somewhat difficult to conceive of Ava DuVernay’s documentary as a mere feature film. But as such, it is a testament to the achievements of activist cinema to this point in time – and a challenge to viewers to take notice and effect change.
The documentarian’s abilities as a cinematic storyteller are evident immediately in The 13th. The animation is fast-paced but well-developed, and it complements the content of the interviews nicely. The usage of stock footage helps to progress the timeline of American history, presenting audience members with the socio-cultural moments that would set precedents for racial standards and perceptions.
The 13th demonstrates how civil rights activists have been consistently treated as criminals – a practice encouraged and exploited by members of government and media alike. One of our nation’s most revered heroes, Martin Luther King Jr., is no exception; America’s most public pacifist was considered a public enemy of the nation during his lifetime. It is easy to forget that someone praised so highly in our modern society was considered more of a menace than the entire Black Lives Matter movement combined. One interview subject speaks on the idea that being viewed as a criminal in the black community was once considered something to be proud of as a result of this: it meant one was willing to protest and lose his or her freedom in order to defend the rights of others. The 13th helps to remind us that our twentieth century heroes were deemed illegal, while those we have come to remember as corrupt held office and wore badges. The act of criminal profiling based on race is a well-documented – and ongoing – American tragedy. To have any doubt about the racial biases within the criminal justice system is pure racism and ignorance, especially after one has been exposed to the information contained with The 13th.
Title: The 13th (2016)
Running Time: 100 min.
Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Written by: Ava DuVernay and Spencer Averick
Cinematography: Hans Charles and Kira Kelly
Music by: Jason Moran
Edited by: Spencer Averick