13th (2016) Review
Director: Ava DuVernay
Screenwriters: Spencer Averick, Ava DuVernay
“So let’s look at the statistics. The United States is home to 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners. Think about that.” – Barack Obama
Provocative and eye-opening, Ava DuVernay’s documentary on the economic reasons behind racism and the continually growing incarceration rates in the United States is a a well-constructed piece that is loaded with the underlying anger of its filmmaker in such a way that it is an undeniable force of nature.
Now an Oscar nominee for ‘Best Documentary Feature’, 13th is about as tightly wound and pristine in its presentation as you might expect from such a well-respected filmmaker with years of history in the genre. Narratively, it is a picture almost entirely devoid of presenting non-related facts, the likes of which are used as a means of furthering the filmmakers’ ideologies in lesser movies of its type, and visually it is as crisply shot and edited as the best of its kind. DuVernay, for all of her anger and resentment towards her own country and the indoctrinated mistreatment of her race, remains steadfast in her pursuit of offering the most professional telling of the story as is possible; an admirable stance considering the political landscape in which the film was made. It is through this approach that the film truly excels, with her clear and defined ideological stance being explained by the well-educated and eloquent talking heads she’s so beautifully filmed at the height of their intellectual outrage, and the torturous scenes of brutality and outrageous decision making that she has used to juxtapose them with. Like any great archive footage handler within the genre, DuVernay uses footage of riots, beatings and even murders to evoke an emotional response to the message of the piece, and furthers their use by aligning them with the voices of the commentators to create a third and often more powerful meaning, the subject of which is clearly drawn through a timeline of America’s history and particularly the treatment of black people throughout the past few centuries.
“We are people, too” seems to be the message, and “we’re not going to stand for it any longer”. Who could blame them? The most fascinating aspect of the documentary is of course its subject matter, which is of the type that leaves you questioning why we’ve never had access to its like before. Private corporations owning prisons and being aligned with politicians in the making of laws, causing a surge in imprisonment; longer minimal jail terms for lesser crimes aimed specifically at the least well-educated and wealthy; higher bail fees turning the innocent into jailbirds for upwards of three years simply because they don’t have the finances to go home. The list goes on, but there are no more damming statistics than the following:
In 2014, the United States of America had 2.4million incarcerated citizens, each of whom will never have the right to vote again. The worst part: it was funding countless billion dollar companies.
Beyond the facts there is a careful and well-timed dissection of the ideologies of the lawmakers and PR spinners whom have been guilty of creating the laws and ideologies that have led to such statistics. Nobody is safe, nor should they be. DuVernay’s guests eloquently explain their views on history and the director fact checks, with clear factual information presented with artistic typography across the entirety of the screen, all in the name of forcing a recognition of the clearly racist state of their country. The picture is clearly rooted in the present at all times too, despite it being so largely referential to the past, and it is through this that the picture’s damming story becomes almost hopeless; the recognition of the rise of President Trump, a man who is shown to be reinforcing the racist ideologies that the film has presented from the decades and centuries that have preceded him.
In watching Ava DuVernay’s 13th, you will likely feel outrage, hopelessness, anger and guilt. So while that may not seem like the most enticing of viewings, ask yourself this: shouldn’t we?
You’ll not see a more critical representation of the US on screen from 2016 and you’ll be hard-struck to find a better documentary this decade. A truly eye-opening, position-altering and ultimately damming documentary that is a must-see piece of cinema in 2016/17.