Documentary Double-Bill: Ava Duvernay’s 13th

Director/Executive Producer Ava DuVernay (center) on the set of SELMA, from Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films. SEL-09411 selma-ava-duvernay1

13th takes its name from the amendment to the United States Constitution introduced in 1865, which abolished slavery and any form of involuntary service. Except for as punishment for a crime. In this feature-length documentary, Ava DuVernay explores the possibility that this loophole simply makes way for further centuries of a new kind of racism, given the fact that there are more African Americans incarcerated in US prisons today, than there were slaves in the 1850s.

As the director of the honest (and sometimes graphic) Martin Luther King biopic Selma, it’s no surprise that DuVernay does not hold back in calling out the flawed, racially motivated judicial system in America, where a shocking 1 in 3 black men will be behind bars at some point in their life. The anger is clear, and it’s justified; as we watch footage of Eric Garner, Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin, we wonder how the most powerful country in the world could let this happen. DuVernay hits us with facts right from the opening scene, as Obama tells us that America contains 5% of the world’s population, yet holds 25% of the world’s prisoners.

Sometimes the facts are halted; we simply see images. Graphic clips of public lynchings, Emmett Till,  KKK members. The soundtrack of empowering black artists, including Public Enemy and Nina Simone perfectly frames the narrative, the lyrics on the screen forcing you to feel their anger and pain. The historians and professors who narrate the film explain America’s racist past in a way which is easy to understand, but hard to digest.

Essentially, the documentary works with a timeline which begins at the abolition of slavery, transcending through the multiple complications surrounding race in the US (including the ignition of the Black Lives Matter movement), and concluding with the bizarre circumstances in which America has been placed leading up to this year’s election. The multiple narrators describe a plethora of different issues surrounding race in culture and politics, from Birth of a Nation sparking a rebirth of the Klu Klux Klan, to Richard Nixon’s advisor admitting that the 1970s War on Drugs was fundamentally a war on African-American communities. With every hard-hitting fact, the issue becomes harder and harder to ignore. And if the film ever feels too long, it’s because there is simply too much to discuss.

Later in the film, a particularly distressing montage contrasts clips from Trump’s rallies with images of racial abuse from the years of segregation, seen here:

We may be used to the candidate’s hate speech at this point, but it’s important, if not depressing, to put it into the context that DuVernay presents. When you compare the behaviour of Trump’s supporters now to the behaviour of white supremacists in the 50s and 60s, it is definitely not world’s apart.

13th helps its audience to understand that while we may feel as though racism, slavery and segregation are terms from the past, these are very real issues that are still prevalent today. DuVernay’s doc should be essential viewing for anyone learning about black history, incarceration, or the current Black Lives Matter movement. It may be difficult to hear the facts, but it is important that we listen, in order to ensure we won’t regress. 

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