Ava DuVernay directed the feature. Her previous film Selma, a story about a moment in African-American history, was nominated for two Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It won Best Original Song for actor-rapper Common.
Like Selma, this movie is superbly crafted. It’s supremely well-photographed. It employs great music, including another great song from Common, as well as powerful news and archival footage. It’s extremely well-edited. It’s never boring, even though it’s mainly talking heads. The pace has a verve and energy to it that itself sings. As such, it immediately becomes one of the best movies of the year and a clear, top contender at the 89th Oscars for Best Documentary.
The numerical title refers to the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It’s commonly known as the amendment that freed the African slaves. Yet, DuVernay points out that the amendment had a loophole, which allowed for black people to become slaves again through criminalization. DuVernay then draws a line from this amendment through American history to present-day race relations and especially the high prison population that is disproportionately black people.
The movie was released on October 7, the same day as Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation. Parker’s film takes its title from D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). In some ways, Parker’s film is supposed to be a rebuke or a critique of Griffith’s, which favors the Ku Klux Klan, or the KKK, a racist group of white people that preferred slavery and terrorized blacks with violent attacks like lynchings. Parker’s film tells a fictionalized version of Nat Turner’s rebellion, a violent uprising against those kind of white people.
Parker’s film answers a story about a violent group with another story about violence. DuVernay’s movie here references Griffith’s film and seeks to rebuke or critique it as well, but if anything, her message isn’t one of violence. It’s in fact the opposite. She’s not telling a narrative here, but the same spirit exists as was in Selma, that spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr who resisted violence.
This is not to say that Nat Turner’s story isn’t a valid one to tell. Parker’s title is emptily provocative, while at the same time hypocritical. DuVernay’s title isn’t hypocritical as much as it’s trying to point out a hypocrisy within the Constitutional Amendment. As she lays out an argument against mass incarceration and the rise of the prison industrial complex, it’s implied that in the wake of this amendment that was meant to free black people, the result was a disproportional amount of black people losing their freedom.
DuVernay goes through each decade starting with the 1970’s and she focuses on several Presidents and the two present, 2016 presidential candidates whom she believes contributed to this mass incarceration problem. She interviews a wealth of brilliant people like Jelani Cobb, an acclaimed history professor. Her interviews critique Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and each one’s efforts that led to the imbalances in the criminal justice system.
A lot of these critiques have been expressed in various TV shows over the past year like Last Week Tonight, Orange is the New Black and The Night Of. DuVernay’s film even goes after the dog-whistle politics that reverberate when this year’s Republican nominee Donald Trump proclaims he’s the candidate of “Law and Order,” which the NBC series of the same name as well as its spin-offs have also deconstructed. Yet, DuVernay weaves it all together so richly and so intelligently.
She caps it off with an advocacy of Black Lives Matter and uses it not as a way of condemning cops or even exposing any police force. She merely underlines the historical importance of people seeing the violence and oppression of black people, such as Emmett Till. She made the same point so amazingly in Selma when people saw on TV the violence on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in 1965. She echoes that same point here but nods to those harsh images now spread using the Internet like the Tamir Rice or Philando Castille case.
DuVernay’s two features before Selma are available on Netflix. One of which is Middle of Nowhere (2012). It probably makes the best companion piece to this documentary. It’s about a woman dealing with her husband who’s put in prison but it doesn’t have the macroscopic view of this movie. It focuses more on personal responsibility, but it only reinforces why this movie is so vital.
Five Stars out of Five.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 40 mins.