Ava DuVernay’s relentless documentary 13th charts the connective tissue between American slavery to our current mass incarceration epidemic, showing the evolution of American degradation of black bodies through the loophole language of the 13th Amendment that allows slavery to continue through criminal punishment. The film is exhaustive and vigorous, connecting history with our present with an inarguable force and impact.
DuVernay crafts the film like a fortress against the opposition ready to call the film mere propaganda. The data exposed at every turn is accessible (if suppressed) elsewhere, but the power of 13th lies in the rational linear assembly of its thesis. Where propaganda aims to play squarely for your emotions and baser instincts, this is a document that calls primarily upon your intellect and rationale. Similarly it is also deconstructing insidious racist ideologies and practices through examining how they have evolved around legality to continue suppressing African Americans. There is condemnation for all sides of the political divide; 13th stakes no political affiliation beyond common decency for black people in America.
That’s not to say that 13th isn’t also an emotional experience. What could have become a talking head documentary in weaker hands (the film is mostly constructed from interviews including Angela Davis), DuVernay’s passionate construction never lets the film fall flat. One would need a complete separation from humanity to remain unmoved by the film, but it doesn’t seek to anger you – it hardly needs to when it’s presented with such sober confidence that the truth will infuriate and motivate you. An emotional experience isn’t sacrificed by the film’s rigorous academic approach with images and data this enervated by national and human urgency.
It is with some risk that DuVernay gives the film such an unyielding pace. Choosing expansiveness rather than more narrowly focused targets, the film chugs along past history that you want more information about, confident that you can and will seek it out for yourself. There is more to be mined, but a wider breadth in a short time span actually increases the impact through succinctness. You may want some moments to feel more comprehensive, but that is the film’s way of forcing you into action through self-education outside of its running time. Here, brevity is truth.
To call the film “illuminating” is to deny it. Again, the information presented is accessible even if there are parties wishing for you to not see it or spend considerable time and money to devalue it. The film does not seek to present this as something new, it wants to rattle us by the world in front of us that we face every day.
13th makes its case with an elemental impenetrability, a shake of the shoulders demanding outrage and change. Ava DuVernay has made the most vital documentary of our current era, proving to be the most exciting American filmmaker working today who can work in any cinematic (narrative or otherwise) form that she chooses.