Ava DuVernay’s Extraordinary Documentary ’13TH’ Is Vital

“We are a nation that professes freedom yet have this hyper-incarceration system that is grinding into it our most vulnerable citizenry — and is overwhelmingly biased towards people of color.”— Senator Cory Booker

Ava DuVernay, acclaimed filmmaker and director of Selma, premiered her latest film documentary, 13TH earlier this month on Netflix. A powerful film, 13th is a living testament that connects the dots between key points in US history, documenting the transition from a land of the free to the land of the most imprisoned population in the world.

It’s a powerful and illuminating documentary schooled by political figures such as Senator Cory Booker, the iconic Black Panther activist Angela Davis, scholar Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. and interviews with previously incarcerated men and women turned activists as well as political commentators (Van Jones). Infused throughout with deep rooted rap lyrics, the heart wrenching archival footage documents the tragic legacy of slavery and the treatment of black people in America. Taking viewers on a virtual tour of the historic racism, systemic oppression and dehumanisation of black people in the U.S over 150 years, ’13th’ is an intensely engaging 100 minutes.

The film begins with a dissection of the 13th amendment itself “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Focusing in on the boldly highlighted section, the film breaks down the very loophole written into the 13th Amendment that has been exploited to disproportionately incarcerate the black population in America.

Charting the power play at hand from the moment that slavery was abolished with the 13th amendment of the US constitution in 1865; to subsequent reforms to prison labour & punishment leading into the Jim Crow apartheid system; to the FBI’s war on black activism led by J. Edgar Hoover; to Nixon’s rhetoric on dissidents; to the war on drugs administered in the Reagan era; to Clinton’s 3 strikes rule – leads us through the path to mass incarceration. The privatisation and subsequent monetisation of the prison system which has ultimately facilitated mass incarceration brings the film to the present day state of emergency and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Ava DuVernay, who grew up in Compton and was accustomed to the heavy presence of police in the 80’s, has always been very vocal about the unjust treatment of black men and women by law enforcement. Talking about the documentary Ava says “…it was made as an answer to my own questions about how and why we have become the most incarcerated nation in the world, how and why we regard some of our citizens as innately criminal, and how and why good people allow this injustice to happen generation after generation.”

Exposing the shocking evolution of the US justice system and overpopulation of prisons, the negative racial inequity that impacts the 2.2 million currently incarcerated, aligns the film very boldly with factual statistics that prove the systematic return to enslavement through the 13th amendment loophole. Statistics such as the fact that 25% of the worlds prison population are housed in America, while the US makes up only 5% of the worlds population, are most shocking in light of the fact that one in three black men are likely to go to prison in their lifetime.

According to The New Yorker’s, Jelani Cobb, ’13th’ explodes the “mythology of black criminality”, depicting the avenues implemented by political authorities to purposely disempower African Americans over 150 years. Highlighting the media’s participation in pumping the narrative of black criminals depicted in the evening news and into millions of homes, to the way that films created the myth of criminality perpetuated over generations and generations, the image of the black man personified as threatening has been embedded in the minds of Americans.

In a powerful segment of the documentary, Ava distinctly focuses the lens on Donald Trump juxtaposing his speeches with emotive footage depicting generational racism seen back in the civil rights struggle. The images are overwhelming, evoking strong emotion, anger and frustration – because things have not changed.

Throughout the film you feel every word and every image with an urgency that directly points to today’s current state, towards those three powerful words – Black Lives Matter. With many more influential figures and prominent voices speaking up and protesting – this powerful movement has transcended the oceans, hit the political and cultural spectrum, and as this film documents, are why movements like this matter.

For it’s power, there are still remaining questions to be answered. Can a 100 minutes be enough to chart history to the root of the problem without offering some solutions? Could DuVernay have pointed out some actionable steps for those trapped in some of the circumstances the documentary speaks of?

There is yet more to document in the struggle for true freedom. 100 minutes is not enough to document the need for more community leaders, the importance of voting and activism within your own community, how to engage with the justice system, seek justice through police or courts, or how to affect change within the law and legislation. But this is all more than can be made into one film.

Ava Duvernay’s 13th is a wake up call, a call to attention to the severity of the historical and political steps that have led the path to today. It is a testament to a time where there is yet again an urgent need for a movement to demand and declare that Black Lives Matter.

’13th’ is a vital watch and is available on Netflix in the UK now.