An exploration of the prison system and race in the US, 13th takes it’s name from the 13th amendment. To paraphrase, the amendment states that the restriction on rights associated with slavery will not be upheld for any citizen in the United States, except those who have committed a crime. Safe in the hands of the extremely talented Ava Duvernay, 13th paints an astonishing and appalling picture of the longstanding systematic racism that has led to 1 in 3 black men being incarcerated at some point in their lives. From the slavery, to the phenomenon that is mass incarceration, Duvernay produces a compelling documentary that screams out for change.
I don’t pretend to know much about the legal system in the States (equally I know very little about it in my own country) so the first thing that struck me about 13th was how accessible it is for a uninformed audience. Roughly chronologically, Duvernay takes us on a journey from the tail end of slavery, segregation, through various Government administrations right up to present day legislation – all through the lens of ‘law and order’. A commonly used phrase, as we see, and one that has been used time and time again to justify racist legislation. 13th uses infographics combined with archive and interviews in order to explore the racism inherent in the criminal justice system under the guise of ‘law and order’. For someone who is aware of the issues, but has little understanding of how it got the point we are at today, the film is saturated with information, as well as being visually and emotionally compelling.
Without giving too much away (because it’s far better to listen to people like Angela Davis, Marie Gottschalk, Jelani Cobb etc talk about this, than to read my words on it), there are some jaw-dropping statistics. The United States makes up 5% of the world’s population, yet 25% of the world’s prisoners are in the States. Likewise, 1 in 3 black men in the United States will, at some point in their lifetime, do prison time. 13th charts the rise of the prison population from the Nixon era (ending in 1974) to the end of the Clinton administration (2001), where we see the prison population of America basically quadruple in size.
It’s very easy for documentaries to spout statistics, but without context and explanation they are essentially meaningless. Duvernay validates these disturbing figures by surrounding them with interesting and articulate interviews with a wide variety of professionals, academics, senators and activists – many of whom have been on the front-line of this battle. Davis is one of the most emotive interviewees, her words made stronger by archive footage of her arrest in 1970. She talks at length about the crimes being done to black communities, the level of systematic violence directly targeted at black men and women. Her words, though 45 years old now, are still so relevant today.
The word ‘criminal’, and it’s association with black folk, recur several times throughout the film – exploring how the word ‘criminal’ is now interchangeable with black people. Of course it’s incredibly important to have an understanding of where this came from, and how society (black and white alike) have been conditioned to see the black population of the US as criminals. There is a segment of the film which focuses on analysing the DW Griffith film, The Birth of a Nation, a film which is full of racism and bigotry – but a film that was still being heralded as a masterpiece when I attended film school (only a few years ago). The Birth of a Nation is often talked about in these terms, being one of the first films to use the editing techniques we still see today in cinema, yet it’s representation of black people (all played by white actors in blackface) is key in understanding how society views race today. They are presented as criminals, rapists, degenerates. Did you know that the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan was a direct result of the release of The Birth of a Nation? I didn’t…
Duvernay concludes the film in the present day – with talk of what comes after mass incarceration, and the work that the Black Lives Matter movement do on a daily basis. Though the footage of victims of police brutality (Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice amongst many, many others) have been shown repeatedly on media networks, watching them in the context of the film is a very different experience. This footage, shot on mobile phones, is even more horrific (if that’s possible) when we have just seen the complete history of state sanctioned violence against communities of people. There is raw emotion behind these sequences, the strong editing giving the film real conviction in it’s message.
A lot of reviews (Guardian, LA Times) have described 13th as ‘fiercely angry’, yet I feel this undermines the incredible work that has been done here. Describing it as ‘angry’ only plays into lazy stereotypes of black people (black women in particular) – irrationally angry. Naturally there is a lot of anger around the subject, but the film itself is calm, collected and polished. It speaks to both those who have an understanding oppression and institutional racism, and to those who are coming to the film with no previous knowledge of it.
13th is an accomplished documentary speaking out about a taboo topic. It’s controversial and incredibly important. Every interview, every animation is detailed and precise – and it definitely warrants a second viewing. Duvernay, though propelled to fame for her fiction films, draws heavily on her past in documentaries and has produced a stunning film. I’ve barely scraped the surface talking about it here, it is really one you should see for yourself.
To learn more about the Black Lives Matter movement, click here.