America has an ugly, brutal racial history. There is no way to avoid that. Slavery. Jim Crow Laws. Lynching. The Ku Klux Klan. These are disturbing parts of this country's past, and to skip over that would be wrong. It would be equally misguided to skip over the impact that these events are still having today. There is still a lot of work to be done, which is highlighted by the surge in police violence in recent years and the subsequent growth of the Black Lives Matter movement. Ava DuVurnay's blistering, brilliant, eye-opening documentary 13th is the story of the creation of this modern society, specifically of how the passage of the 13th Amendment gave way to mass incarceration, a different kind of slavery. DuVernay's film (which premiered at the New York Film Festival and is on Netflix now) asks a fundamental question at the heart of the American system- "Why does this country have 1/4th of the world's prison population?"
It may be a simple question, but this is no simple issue. Over the course of this epic documentary, DuVernay creates a disturbing film that feels like a living, breathing chronicle of our pained past. The War on Drugs, the prison-industrial complex, specific clauses in the 13th Amendment, the Black Lives Matter movement, even the current election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump- it's all discussed in this phenomenal film. 13th is an urgent, topical piece of cinema, a meticulous history lesson that doubles as a movie for the moment. In a year where we've seen so much division and unrest (I'm from Charlotte, so I've seen this first-hand), DuVernay's film excels as both a sobering look at the systemic problems that plague our nation and an intense, passionate cry for change. It is a top-notch documentary, and one of the most important films of 2016.
13th comes at a critical time for America. People are very divided, seemingly over every issue. Civility has been thrown out the window. We just had a presidential debate last week where most of the time was spent on discussing a leaked audio of one of the candidates talking about how he sexually assaulted women. That same candidate has been running a disgusting campaign for months, preying off the paranoid fears of Americans and exploiting every possible minority in the country. People on the right are angry, and because of that anger, people on the left are mad too. It's a no-win scenario. Citizens feel like their voices are not being heard, and this is the result of years of frustration. But in the midst of all this mud-slinging ugliness, we've seemingly lost sight of a number of issues. Our attention has been so focused on the meteoric rise of a terrifying figure in American politics that other issues have only received brief coverage in the media.
DuVernay's film exists to start a conversation, to provoke thought and hopefully stimulate a thoughtful discussion on how to fix our broken criminal justice system. Because the system is broken. I don't think that any reasonable person would argue against that, which is proven by the fact that DuVernay has prominent figures from both sides of the aisle contribute to the documentary (one of the most surprisingly thoughtful interviews comes from Newt Gingrich.) So why is nobody really talking about this? Sure, the police shootings get coverage. The resulting protests and riots are all over CNN and Fox News. But by merely covering one aspect of a systemic problem, we're ignoring the issues that are deeply rooted in our society. Police brutality and racism is part of a larger system of oppression built on decades of mass incarceration and negative policy decisions. To ignore these issues is to ignore the problem.
We're in the midst of the second Civil Rights movement, which won't be slowing down any time soon. This is going to shift into some personal opinion, but when discussing this documentary, it's kind of hard to not find yourself injecting your own political views into the conversation. The first half of 13th methodically moves through the history of African-American oppression in the aftermath of the Civil War amendments, which has included everything from Jim Crow laws to the War on Drugs. Around the midway point of the film, DuVernay shifts the conversation to the modern day. The history is laid out simply and effectively, which makes the blistering takedown of the prison-industrial complex and mass incarceration all the more astounding. DuVernay is careful and meticulous, delivering a steady stream of facts and information to the audience without ever going off the rails. It's a dazzling feat of documentary filmmaking, a movie that will simply knock you off your feet.
Why is Colin Kaepernick sitting down for the national anthem? Why have there been riots erupting all over the country? What is the cause of our modern situation and conversation regarding race? 13th answers these questions in the most measured way possible, all while managing a subtle undercurrent of anger. With this film, DuVernay has crafted a film for the moment (and the movement, as one Twitter user pointed out to me) while also delivering a masterclass in filmmaking. Other topical films like Spike Lee's Chi-Raq pale in comparison to DuVernay's epic, sprawling, and utterly outstanding breakdown of this broken, oppressive system. After breaking out in a big way with Selma, DuVernay proves that she's a versatile, effortlessly talented director with 13th, one of the most gripping and moving documentaries I've ever seen. She's always had an eye for social issues and modern injustice, but with 13th, DuVernay transcends film to create a living, breathing document of the past, present, and future of race in America. It's a stunning achievement.
THE FINAL GRADE: A (9.2/10)
Images courtesy of Netflix