Ava DuVernay has quickly become one of the most important directorial voices in cinema today. (It’s still crazy to me that Selma somehow didn’t win Best Picture in 2014. Well, I guess it’s not that crazy because we know the Oscars have serious flaws. But, hey, I’m sure there’s somebody out there who has plans to pop in Birdman tonight when he or she gets home from work. Maybe.) Her new follow-up is a documentary that premieres at the New York Film Festival on Friday night (and will be on Netflix October 7), titled 13th, and in no way is it a surprise that it’s a powerful piece of filmmaking.
The title refers to the United States’ 13th amendment, which banned slavery and is something we tend to celebrate today as unquestionably a good thing. 13th takes a closer look at the language – specifically the part that says slavery is still acceptable if it’s a part of punishment for a crime – and takes us through the history of how that “loophole” has been used to take rights away from black communities since the day slavery ended.
This is driven home by the statistics of just how many people are incarcerated in the United States and how that number started spiking in the early 1970s and continues to rise at an alarming rate. Right now, the United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, but we have 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. That’s a staggering number, exacerbated by laws mandating minimum sentencing that came from the “war on drugs” that Nixon outlined, Reagan set into motion, and lobbying groups like ALEC keep alive and make worse. (Honestly, when we see footage of modern prisoners being forced to work for corporations, it really does make one thing we’ve come one full tragic circle.)
13th is smart to not put all the blame on post Southern Strategy Republicans – though they do receive most of it – as we see Charlie Rangel interviewed and admit that he was for the Reagan plan at the time, but admits it didn’t work. Also: Bill Clinton receives a heaping of blame for this, then we see his now famous speech where he admits the crime bill he signed into law in 1994 was a mistake. And, yes, we watch Hillary Clinton use the term “super predator,” a sound bite that has plagued her for years.
And then there’s Newt Gingrich, who for some reason agreed to be interviewed for this documentary. What’s remarkable is he winds up being Ava DuVernay’s ace in the hole, as he states that no white person can ever imagine what it’s like to be a black person in America. And he also says the way the crack epidemic was handled was wrong: as the white suburbanites who snorted coke were ignored while the black communities were raided. To have Newt Gingrich on screen and saying that, yes, these are real problems — well that makes things difficult to deny across the political spectrum.
(Newt Gingrich is the most frustrating type of politician. Here he is, doing some real good by being in this documentary and acknowledging mistakes and identifying real problems in the United States with how the government treats black people, then he will go out and work extensively to support Donald Trump, who is the living embodiment of the opposite of everything Gingrich just said.)
Speaking of Trump: No one mentions him by name, but one of the film’s most powerful moments comes near the end, with just footage of a Trump rally and how Trump and some of the people who attend Trump rallies treat people of color. It will make you (well, a normal person at least) sad and angry and ashamed. But this is what a good documentary should do.
And the thing is, we are well past denying this is happening. It used to be easy for good people to shoo away the thoughts of police killing unarmed citizens with a response of, “Well, he must have done something to cause that.” Now we’ve seen the videos. Now we’ve seen the truth. And what 13th does best is take all these emotions we are feeling and put them all together and give real context to what’s happening. This is our America. And thank goodness a filmmaker like Ava DuVernay has such a strong voice in our America.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.