“13th” is the next film from the director of “Selma”, a critically acclaimed picture charged with the same racial tension as the actual events depicted in the picture.
The documentary operates under the premise that the 13th amendment didn’t effectively free the slaves, but rather transition people of color to other insidious methods of subjugation, namely into the role of criminals.
Structured very similarly to a lecture, the film begins by running through the history of both society’s treatment of minorities and the various enactments of criminal law.
Beginning in the early 20th century, archival footage is paired with one-on-one interviews in a tried and true documentary style. Since “13th” is airing on Netflix, the archival shots aren’t softened, a point made later in the film. At times the age old structure seemed tiring with such relevant, timely material, but stellar interviews almost across the board help distract from the hundredth panning shot of a speaker.
The material in “13th” is incredibly relevant. Moving up through the last century of discrimination, alienation and segregation the scenes familiarize the viewer with the brutality of a time gone by.
As it progresses the through the film, the storyline is sidetracked by relevant side threads, such as a takedown of the ALEC organization. These do feel like necessary sidesteps to better inform the viewer about the larger narrative.
The documentary has an educated, nuanced explanation of the political progression of the prison system and does an excellent job of presenting the information in a logical manner. Some may complain that these portions take shots at past Presidents unduly, and Republicans in general.
Later in the film “13th” uses interviews from Republican Grover Norquist is used as an almost belligerent, humorous juxtaposition to the rest of the commentators. There are well thought out conservative defenses to the questions raised in the film, but “13th” favored establishing its own rhetoric rather than tackling others.
That decision doesn’t make for anything less powerful, the arguments and points made at the heart of 13th don’t rely on others to stand up. After the film has, as previously mentioned, educated viewers on the past, developed a vocabulary with the audience in how director Ava DuVernay speaks about race, the real points that it is trying to make are made clear.
Using the same clips from earlier in the film, the past is compared in sickening style to the present. Powerful parallels are drawn from what was to what is, and footage from recent riots and political rallies help encapsulate the point of the film, that slavery persists in less apparent, deceptive methods. In a harrowing moment “13th” even goes so far as to describe where the next form of subjugation will appear.
As the credits rolled, “13th” leaves a sour taste in your mouth. The problems aren’t anything new, but they are things that have been normalized to a point where they are unrecognizable to casual scrutiny. It takes the nuanced examinations of experts and activists to lay out such a damning case against practices only 20 years old. The film “13th” may annoy some for its one sided approach to the narrative, but it was necessary to create a powerful case.