(USA, 100 min.)
Dir. Ava DuVernay, Writ. Spencer Averick, Ava DuVernay
Courtesy of Netflix
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction,” reads the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of American. Selma director Ava DuVernay reads this clause, which was introduced to abolish slavery, as further evidence of America’s systemic racism. 13th, DuVernay’s new doc, forms a strong argument that smartly hinges on that first comma and the word “except” that so tragically graces the Constitution. The film situates the explosion of the Black Lives Matter within the country’s ongoing history of racial prejudice.

DuVernay assembles a strong and compelling chorus of talking heads that includes notable figures like Angela Davis and Henry Louis Gates. They discuss the very complicated and intricate system of oppression that endures in the land of Lady Liberty despite this 13th Amendment. The doc argues that America’s prisons are the new cotton fields and that hard time is the new slavery. Engrossing and fiercely articulated analysis of historical moments and pop culture phenomena, ranging from Bill Clinton’s “Three Strikes” act to DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, deconstruct the mythology of black criminality that America perpetuates to keep one part of its population beneath the others. 13th taps into the explosive restlessness of the Black Lives Matter movement and the film leaves little room for disagreement as DuVernay positions the killings of Black Americans, including far too many children and unarmed civilians, within a sociological ideology that says all men are created equal, “except” when those in power need to put others down to stay at the top.

DuVernay’s argumentation compensates for the doc’s overall schematic approach to the subject and the frequent heavy-handedness with which DuVernay drives the point home. The director blasts the word “CRIMINAL” in big blocked letter title cards literally every time one of her talking heads says the term. Such a strong argument shouldn’t play out like a drinking game. Busy camerawork and on-the-nose song choices also detract, but the words and passion consistently outweigh the style.

The film is very forceful and compelling, except it finds itself somewhat eclipsed by Raoul Peck’s rousing and brutally incisive I am Not Your Negro, which covers similar terrain with even greater might and finesse. Ditto Brett Story’s bold and provocative The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, which deconstructs America’s prison industrial complex as a whole. All three films deserve an audience, though, and perhaps even a screening series to assert how much the United States needs to clean up its act and protect the people the Constitution aims to serve. As a film of the moment, though, DuVernay has her finger firmly on the button.

13th is now screening on Netflix.