13th is a documentary that everyone needs to see. Point blank. It's on Netflix, so there's no reason not to. Get on it, people. Unfortunately, I think that those who most need to see it are the same people who would dismiss it as liberal propaganda.
Director Ava DuVernay has shown throughout her career a passion for the issue of incarceration in the United States, and how this epidemic disproportionately affects black communities. In 13th, she moves away from using it as a narrative theme and instead addresses it head-on, as the centerpiece of a dialogue about an American society that consistently treats black people as second or third class citizens. The results are raw, emotional, disturbing, and unfortunately, incredibly timely.
13th is a remarkably ambitious piece that looks at the issue of mass incarceration as merely an extension of the same evolving vision of slavery that has plagued American society since its inception. It ties together lynching and slavery and Jim Crow laws with mass incarceration and the sabotage of black civil rights leaders throughout the 1960s and the war on drugs. Through this lens, it weaves a tapestry of black oppression that has not abated as the years have gone by but merely morphed into other more insidious forms.
All of these elements are things that most educated people would consider themselves at least somewhat aware of, but taken as a whole they show a far more systematic, intentional form of bigotry against black Americans, which should by all rights deliver a death blow to the infuriating argument that we live in a post-racial America.
There are statistics in this film that are staggering to see. But perhaps what's more disturbing is the long, documented history of the US government purposefully instituting policies and programs that have no other goal than to keep the black community disenfranchised simply because it furthers their myopic interests. Racism is not a bug in this civic system, it's a feature.
But in a documentary filled to the brim with upsetting things, the hardest parts to watch were the ones that relate to present day America. The juxtaposition of quotes from Donald Trump and images of anti-black violence in the 1960s, both filled with such hatred, vitriol, and utter malevolence, were not surprising, but they were deeply disturbing.
Content aside, 13th is well-constructed and engaging. Its imagery and in particular its use of rap and hip-hop lyrics create a fresh, urgent, and angry take on the modern documentary. Each interview, graphic, and video interlude feels perfectly chosen, and it serves as a master class on how to put together a documentary that makes people sit up and listen. We've all sat through enough important but boring documentaries to know the real deal when we see it.
Ava DuVernay may have made her mark on narrative filmmaking over the past few years with Selma and A Wrinkle in Time, but I hope that doesn't mean she'll abandon the documentary format altogether, because she seems to grasp the power of the medium in a way that is relatively rare.