Ava DuVernay’s impressionable documentary “13th” came out on Netflix last Friday, October 10th 2016. No better time than after the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, and other African Americans giving birth to the Black Lives Matter Movement. In addition, it just so happens that I’m currently doing my 2nd year at Humber in their Film and Television Production course and we are currently doing documentaries as our first semester major project. Can you say relevant?
DuVernay named the documentary 13th after the “13th” Amendment which abolishes slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for crime, leaving a huge loop hole. DuVernay shows how the imprisonment of black people across America is the prime example of the “13th” amendment to its full extent and is still being exploited today.
The anger of black people across the globe as well as DuVernay’s frustration is quite evident in the documentary; however; DuVernay uses her fury to create a compelling, argument and never loses focus of her message.
DuVernay tells the story of mass incarceration and lays out sad, hard facts through a series of interviews of professionals, politicians, historians and advocates including Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander and Sen. Corey Booker just to name a few. “13th” chronicles the criminalization of African American men from as far back as slavery to present day and brings light to its social prejudice, and racial discrimination. The documentary touches on everything from the Jim Crow era, to D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation”, to the War on Drugs and all of its effects on America’s criminal justice system and political state today.
“13th” even goes into A.L.E.C, the American Legal Exchange Council, and their predated laws such as their dumb ass “Stand Your Ground” bullshit law that let that asshole George Zimmerman get away with killing Trayvon Martin. DuVernay also describes A.L.E.C’s relationship with the CCA (Corrections Cooperation of America) and how together they benefited from things such as mandatory minimum sentences.
What stood out the most to me was the planting of the seed to view all black men and women as hard criminals, especially the noble’s ones that accepted their arrests to prove a point. In order, for America to get away with what they were doing they needed their citizens and the world to believe what they were doing was right too. MLK, Malcom X, my great grandfather, Marcus Garvey, hell, even Angela Davis herself were all thrown into jail and labelled as “dangerous criminals” in the media. The human was never seen in a black man, only the profit.
Visually, I would have to say it was your average documentary. It’s clear the DuVernay chose narrative over picture because I didn’t find there was much cinematic style. However, coming from a film student about to shoot her first documentary in a week, it helped me get a better understanding of what an expository documentary looks like, and how to map out the content so that a narrative isn’t required. And, when you have a strong message, it will be easier to ignore the lack of cinematic creativity. In addition, I appreciated the pauses with numerical facts about the population of black men in prison in each ear, but I do not think all the music was necessary. One common song would have been just fine for each segment rather than a variety. Nonetheless, what better way to learn than by watching this emotional, engrossing documentary?
Everyone knows that in America, a black man is more likely to be put in jail. DuVernay shows us the numbers and explains them. It broke my heart to learn that in a country that holds 5% of the world’s population and almost 25% of the worlds prisoners, a white man’s chance of serving time is 1 in 7; for a black man its 1 in 3.
DuVernay’s documentary reminds us that all lives will matter when Black lives matter. It is more than a hashtag. It is more than a movement. Black Lives Matter is a right to be treated like the human beings that we are and nothing less. The prison system is legal slavery. It was never about rehabilitation it was about making money and finding a way to turn 4 million free slaves into slaves again without saying that.
13th left me angry but appreciative of what I learned. It had me talking about mass incarceration. Hell, it made me right this review I’m not a film expert but I do see awards coming DuVernay’s way.
Watch the trailer here: