FILM REVIEW: 13TH (2016) DIR. ANA DUVERNAY
By Belle McIntyre
13TH, is a supremely uncomfortable, thoroughly compelling, well-researched look at one of the
most lamentable aspects of American history. The film traces the trajectory African Americans
from slavery, abolition, lynchings, Jim Crow and up to today’s mass incarceration. The overwhelming volume of verifiable facts and statistics combined with stories by those who
suffered as well as those who governed and those who reported absolutely supports the thesis
of Ana Duvernay that mass incarceration of a disproportionate number of black men in American prisons is a case of institutionalized slavery. This is not a shallow exploration of the facts and history. She digs deep. Examining the clause in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which abolished slavery which states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted shall exist……..” is the loophole which has been exploited to allow for the wholesale creation of a new enslaved class, a source of cheap labor, forced to work without compensation.
She follows the deplorable ways in which white people with the complicity of politicians and
vested interests responded to abolition, by initiating Jim Crow style policies designed to keep
former slaves under control and to deny them equality in society and the economy of America.
While not technically against the law, much of the policies in the Jim Crow south were designed to maintain something as close to segregation and subjugation as possible. The prison population began to grow in the 1940’s, continuing through the Civil Rights movement, right up until today with mandatory sentencing for non-violent crimes, and harsher drug laws, both significantly more strictly enforced among minorities. The revelatory aspect and the dismaying present reveal how embedded into the economics of our country this has become with the advent of for-profit prisons. What this means, as is true of all businesses, is that there must be customers to buy what you have to sell. The building boom in private prisons needs to be fed. Ergo more criminals. The disproportionate number of minorities arrested and charged for minor offenses who end up in prisons has kept up with the pace of expanded prisons. The businesses which service prisons are vast conglomerates which provide jobs and income to their communities. Add to this the bail bond industry which, can charge usuriously high rates to those least likely able to afford them means that minor offenses can result in prison time while awaiting trial and you have the building blocks of the prison industrial complex. The legal economic incentives which encourage and reward the existence of the system are thoroughly and clearly explained. Duvernay weaves all of the influences together so expertly that there is no room for argument.
I have to admit to not being an astute student of history in school and the fact the the play
Hamilton, served as a refresher course in that period of our history, and does not let us
delude ourselves that we are a wholly noble people. It ends with the recent escalation in police
actions and killings of unarmed black men resulting in the Black Lives Matter movement. 13TH
provides such a well-crafted presentation of the willful consequences of our lingering attitudes
toward race that it should induce some serious soul searching and active engagement in
addressing this development.We have got to get a grip. This is not inflammatory biased rhetoric.
It is not a pretty picture. When asked, during the Q & A following the screening I saw two days
after the election, how she saw the way forward, she paused and shaking her head in disbelief
answered: “After this election, I just don’t know”. It was a moment of profound sadness and
recognition in the theatre. Do not imagine that his is an unwatchable cavalcade of indictments. It is amazingly balanced and thoughtfully presented by a fascinating array of talking heads like Angela Davis, Hillary Clinton, Henry Louis Gates and a surprising sequence with New Gingrich expressing concern. It feels emphatic yet fair and balanced. There are evocative graphics and a lot of newsreel footage which is all briskly paced and clearly presented and deeply moving. It feels urgent. Ana Duvernay is a daring passionate advocate for our better angels. She cannot be ignored.
Available on Netflix. It must be seen.