Review: 13th

Filmmaker Tony Aldis reviews the new Netflix documentary 13th, looking at the civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter and the industrial prison complex.

Image: Netflix

13th is a new film by Ava DuVernay, the director of the much acclaimed Selma. In this new work she again deals with the issue of black civil rights in the United States but this time using a documentary format. The film’s narrative revolves almost entirely around the inclusion within the historic 13th amendment to the US constitution, legally abolishing slavery, of the following caveat: “except as punishment for a crime”.

The on-going consequences are put before us throughout an hour and forty minutes of assembled archive footage and interviews. It runs not so much as a thread, but more as a razor wire separating black Americans and their civil and constitutional rights. DuVernay, judging by this production, has during her ascent through the connected worlds of public relations and the film industry accumulated a large box of filmic tools which she deploys here to both intensify the focus and clarity of the information coming at the viewer. She even manages to make what is in many places a vivid depiction of the violence and degradation done to and placed upon the black community ‘entertaining’ in the simple sense of encouraging and easing the engagement with the medium and messages.

13th opens with the first example of this. A graphic animation, the style of which is carried through the film, is accompanied by the voice of President Obama sounding not unlike the hero of Selma as he proclaims that the United States of America has within its prisons a full quarter of all those that are incarcerated on the planet. This despite being home to a mere six percent of the world’s population.

DuVernay then almost immediately drops us back at what is her beginning. Slavery has just been outlawed and the States, particularly the south we are told, are in tatters. Cheap labour, and a lot of it, is required to both rebuild and maintain the economy. This, it is argued, was the first step down the road to what will be called by some an era of mass incarceration and ultimately the development of the US ‘industrial prison complex’. From the start members of the black community are systematically locked up for the most minor of infringements of statute and thus form a new pool of ‘slave’ labour with which the US is rebuilt.

We are then taken through the various developments, twists and turns with the US judicial and political system that jointly or in succession perpetrate the denial of voting as well as basic civil rights including, but not exhaustively, the Jim Crow laws, the so-called war on drugs, three strikes legislation and at significant points the expansion, privatisation and militarisation of the penal system. It does this with the aid of comment from academics, activists and politicians with either first-hand experience or specialisms that speak to these events. They are rightly predominantly black and with the welcome positioning of women’s voices at the centre of the discourse. The director wants us to pay careful attention to them at all times and while the words she chooses for the edit were often enough in and of themselves, she again went to the effort as a film maker to thoughtfully stage and frame the interviews. This attention to ascetic and detail seems to add weight and suggest that these individuals and their words are part of what will become a considered framework.

The final link comes as we move into the present and view the Black Lives Matter movement in its position as both a reaction to continued violent repression and murder of black Americans as well as the new torch bearer for black civil rights. The names of those killed come up numerous, fresh and familiar to be added to those we know as part of a more distant history. They are added to a symbolic wall of remembrance and also of shame. In early reflection what is seen as one of its strengths as a movement is its headless form. Nowhere for the judicial system to strike the fatal blow it has dealt time and time again to those that have organised and stood up against it. Whether this is true long term we are yet to see.

Whether you agree with each detailed argument or indeed all the conclusions drawn, for anyone looking to explore the issues around black civil rights, the judicial system and why the US is where it is today this film is an excellent place to start or indeed continue. It is never a complete picture and is not meant to be. DuVernay has previously proclaimed she is foremost a story teller. 13th is certainly at its thinnest when at one point the rise in crime that occurred at the same time as the rise in the early civil rights movement is almost dismissed as unfortunate coincidence, regardless of the difficulties and central role it plays to the narrative going forward. To hold this against it would be wrong in my view. Yes, other forces are at play, but there is time to look at those once eyes have been opened a little. With that in mind I would suggest DuVernay is not content to simply document, as valuable as that may be. Rather this is her contribution to a live issue and a call to think and to act. In its closing credits the most powerful reason for urgency is put forward in pictures and at this moment 13th displays it too has a dream.


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