Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th” lands with unsettling, unstoppable force, delivering a long-buried lesson on race, history, criminal justice and political cynicism with such swift concision that viewers may emerge feeling wiser, but still not knowing what hit them.
Named for the 13th Amendment, which declared slavery illegal except as a punishment for criminality, DuVernay’s film expertly threads the audience through the myriad ways that loophole has been used to control, suppress and decimate communities of color: through mass arrests and imprisonment after the Civil War (when black men’s free labor was used to help rebuild a ravaged South); through the criminalization of activism during the civil rights era; and through draconian law-and-order policies that started with the Nixon administration and continued through the Clinton and Bush years. As the film argues, politicians and a compliant media have stoked and exploited an irrational fear of African Americans — especially young African American men — initially to secure white votes, and more recently to feed a profit-driven private prison system.
DuVernay creates a cogent, compelling argument in “13th,” which balances attractively filmed talking-head interviews with alternately heartbreaking and infuriating archival footage. Although “13th” largely makes its points unchallenged (there are only one or two opposing views), DuVernay has found an impressive range of scholars and policymakers to make the case against mass incarceration. It might not be surprising to hear the likes of Van Jones, Bryan Stevenson, Michelle Alexander and Angela Davis describing how structural racism within the criminal justice system has done grievous damage to black and brown communities. But viewers may do a double take when Newt Gingrich observes that “if you’re white in America, you have no idea what it’s like to be black.”
As a polemic at its most persuasive and potentially galvanizing, “13th” is undeniably effective; it’s also shrewdly designed, with DuVernay using on-screen text to underline and clarify the dizzying number of data points she connects. The word “criminal” flashes on screen every time one of her sources says the word, the motif accentuating how language has been manipulated and politically repackaged over centuries.
As informative as “13th” is, though, it turns into something far more emotional and distressing during its final moments, when the filmmaker replays video footage of black men being shot and beaten by police, then intercuts footage of black activists being roughed up at a Donald Trump rally with uncannily similar images of people being hosed and set upon by dogs in the 1960s. DuVernay ends “13th” on a healing note, correcting the toxic messages she’s just unpacked with photographs of African American life at its warmest, happiest and most quotidian. How to reconcile that reality with the dehumanizing myths that have been promulgated for decades, she leaves up to us.
The 13th, 100 minutes, will begin streaming Friday on Netflix.