Anyone who loves what America can be – and fears what America can become – must see the 13th, a powerful documentary of race relations in the country, past, present and, hopefully, future.
The opening film of this year’s New York Film Festival dares to explore the layers of hatred, deception and denial that create the racial tension that defines too many confrontations between people in our country. While politicians may argue over what dignity people should be able to expect, the film reminds us how easy it can be to pretend that all people are treated in equal ways.
Director Ava DuVernay returns to her roots as a documentary director to deliver a striking story of how a nation can fool itself into believing it is fair at the same time it enables a judicial system to fuel the discord that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution tried to resolve more than 100 years ago.
That amendment was passed to end slavery in our country. But, as DuVernay so eloquently explores, things didn’t quite work that way. Using the laws of the land, and building on generations of fear, people filled with hatred and greed used the system to fill prisons with people who dared to be born different colors than their own. With respect and restraint, the director examines how this tragedy evolved over time, as well-spoken politicians articulated the right words while looking the other way as the African American population in prisons grew by astronomical numbers.
While DuVernay lets the facts speak volumes, she never resorts to cheap shocks or superficial claims. Instead she relies on a series of expert testimonials – from such luminaries as activist Angela Davis and African American Studies scholar Jelani Cobb – to comment on the inconsistencies between what the nation would say and what it would do.
As DuVernay goes back in history to detail the origins of the fight for freedom, she traces the steps that people took to superficially comply with the amendment while using the judicial system to force too many people into forms of servitude that law intended to eliminate. The director leaves no one out of her camera’s reach, from for-profit companies that make money building and maintaining prisons, to organizations that benefit from the low labor costs of inmates, to politicians who capitalize on what people fear to advance their agendas.
With extensive use of archival footage, DuVernay saves her sharpest views for politicians who should know better. No one escapes her view, from President Johnson to Nixon to Reagan and both the leaders named Bush. Neither do the Clintons nor the candidate named Trump avoid DuVernay’s scrutiny. This director – who detailed an essential history lesson with her narrative film Selma – sends a clear message that, no matter who is in office, voters have the ultimate power in their hands as they pull levers to elect leaders who should enable people to build better lives.
As honest and brutal as the film can feel, DuVernay ultimately sends a message of hope, as she expresses her belief that truth can overcome lies, knowledge can overwhelm ignorance, and the mix of races in our nation can serve to bring out the best people, not the worst.
If you only see one more movie this year, see this one. Soon.
- Content: High. Moviemaker Ava DuVernay asks fascinating questions of how the judicial system in the United States may undermine the liberties granted by the 13th amendment to the Constitution.
- Entertainment: High. Despite the somber content, DuVernay’s rhythm of filmmaking, and investigative strength, create a compelling 100-minute experience.
- Message: High. While totally absorbing as a movie, 13th has a lot to say about the choices a nation makes to respect the freedoms its citizens deserve.
- Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk with older children about how to confront real racial tension is time well spent.
- Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After sharing this film with older children, take time for a conversation about how they see the situations they can help change.
(13th runs 100 minutes. The film premiers in theaters, and on Netflix, on October 7.)
Read more about the work of Ava DuVernay in the Reel Dad, Arts and Leisure, at arts.hersamacorn.com.
The Reel Dad rates this film: Five Popcorn Buckets.
Ava DuVernay: A Director With Vision
As she speaks, she makes us want to listen, describing the joy she experiences when using her camera to inspire people to believe and act.
For Ava DuVernay, the movie 13th is more than a return to her roots as a documentary filmmaker. And it reaches beyond an opportunity to ask pivotal questions about relations between races in this country. For this remarkable lady, the film is a journey to understand how history could create the present, and how our actions in the present will create more history. And, for DuVernay, this is all personal.
“Some segments of the film still hit me hard,” the director recently said at a question-and-answer session at the New York Film Festival where 13th was the opening attraction. “Some moments are still difficult to watch. I can’t see them without tearing up. Just letting myself imagine people in such isolation, feeling surrounded by hatred, hoping for better lives.”
DuVernay’s journey with 13th began after she found herself in the midst of controversy at the 2014 Oscars. While her acclaimed film Selma scored a nomination for Best Picture, and won an Oscar for its song, many believed it was inappropriately snubbed by Academy voters, especially for the performance of David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King. While DuVernay stayed above the buzz, she welcomed the opportunity that 13th offered to return to the themes of the earlier film.
“I started 13th – after receiving the invitation from Netflix – with the intent to study the nation’s prison system, specifically how for-profit companies make money building prisons to incarcerate growing populations. As I learned more, I began to realize why there was so much demand for for-profit prisons. Growth in the nation’s prison population was out of control. And I had to find out why.”
What DuVernay discovered – and details in 13th – is how, over more than 100 years, the intent of the 13th amendment may have fueled an underground system of racial prejudice, discrimination and hatred that defined violence on the streets and filled prisons with large numbers of African Americans. As she began to examine how this could have happened, she formed her story of people who use hatred to deny the freedom of their enemies and to fuel their own economic ambitions. And, as DuVernay realized, that’s not much different than the conditions that fueled slavery in our nation’s early years.
“I followed my whims and curiosity,” the filmmaker explains, “and left hours of strong sequences ‘on the cutting room floor’ as they say. I am a student of history, to be certain, just as I am a woman of hope. And the credits of the film – and please watch all the way through the credits – articulate the better days that can be ahead. We are survivors.”
As DuVernay described the details of the filmmaking process – including the locations she selected as backdrop for interviews and the thousands of hours of archival footage she reviewed – she revealed a personal situation that led to a courageous creative choice.
“I had to decide if and how to use footage in the public domain of the recent examples of racial brutality,” she shared. “But I had just lost my father. And I wondered how I would feel if I saw his last moments in a movie. I thought about the families of the people who died in recent years as the result of racially-induced violence. I wondered how they feel when those images flash on screens without warning. I promised myself that I would not use any footage of anyone’s treatment – no matter how many times it had been seen – without securing the permission of the surviving family. That became my way to pay respect to those who died.”
The respect Ava DuVernay brings to 13th – as well as her strong sense of story and moment – makes this an essential movie to see this year And so deserving of the acclaim it will receive.