Time: 100 Minutes
Director: Ava DuVernay
Filmmaker Ava DuVernay explores the history of racial inequality in the United States, focusing on the fact that the nation’s prisons are disproportionately filled with African-Americans.
Full movie here:
I don’t really do reviews of documentaries, nor do I watch many of them, the last one I can think of was Won’t You Be My Neighbor some years ago. However I was compelled to watch 13th with current events, with the recent protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd by 4 police officers. In this time, multiple movies and documentaries about racism have been recommended for people to watch, one of those was Ava DuVernay’s 13th. Netflix (who distributed the documentary) even posted the whole movie on YouTube for free. Now I heard of the movie but for whatever reason I hadn’t looked into it until now. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to watch it. 13th is greatly made, it still remains relevant to this day and sadly I don’t see it ever not being relevant.
Reviewing documentaries is hard because you are a lot of the time talking about the content of the documentary and it’s hard to separate from that the quality of how it’s made. Not that I don’t want to talk about the topic of the film, I just don’t want this review to be a brief summary of what the documentary is. I can however talk about some of the things that it talks about, there’s a lot more to it than what I say here. Essentially, while America abolished slavery, that was just replaced with systems of racial control and forced labour. The movie’s title of 13th refers to the 13th amendment to the American constitution, which abolished slavery in the United States and ended involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for conviction of a crime”. That last detail at the end was the massive catch, almost immediately slavery was substituted with criminality, and legislation like Jim Crow supressed minorities. Along with talking about the civil rights era, the documentary also talks about a lot of the actions by the government which made it worse for African Americans, mainly focussing on the Nixon Era, Reagan era, Bush Sr. era, and the Clinton era, and the policies that shaped the way things moved, including the war on crime/drugs from Nixon and Reagan, and the Crime Bill by Clinton. One thing I will say is that I do wonder why it doesn’t really cover the W. Bush and Obama eras, especially as they spent a good amount of time covering each of the previous Presidents’ eras, and it felt a little out of place when they didn’t go into those, not even touching on them. We know for certain that they didn’t really get better under them, so it’s weird that they didn’t even address that 16 year period. Another important aspect was how money played a huge role in prisons, specifically keeping African Americans in there for profit. With the mix of politicians and corporations now mixed in the political system, it makes actual change virtually impossible even inside that government. As for the storytelling of the movie, it was handled very well. It’s riveting from beginning to end, and it’s pretty accessible to everyone I’d say. Even at the length of an hour and 40 minutes, it gets a lot of information across. It’s especially chilling watching much of what’s in the film, especially knowing that this was made back in 2016. Not only because it’s horrific and depressing seeing that these events and periods happening in the first place, but there are also certain moments shown which reflects moments from the past couple of weeks, reminding all of us that really nothing has changed.
Ava DuVernay is a good director, she’s shown that with Selma, and her work on 13th is also great. Generally it plays as most documentaries (or at least how I’d expect them to), there aren’t any criticisms I have on the filmmaking. On top of the interviews specifically being made for this documentary with the likes of Angela Davis, Bryan Stevenson, Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, Cory Booker and others, there’s also clips from news footage and the like, and it’s all edited together well. The most interesting stylistic choice was the transitions in sections/eras, especially with the use of rap music to illustrate the themes throughout the documentary.
13th is a damning, harrowing, articulate and extensive documentary, incredibly well made, and is going to remain relevant for a very long time. It’s difficult to watch for sure, but it absolutely is essential and mandatory viewing. As I said, the movie is on YouTube right now, so you have no excuse not to watch it.