Director Ava DuVernay has successfully made a documentary that challenges and even dismantles our collective understanding of one of the most dangerous notions of our time: “progress.” How do we define progress, and who precisely gets to define it? 13th, now streaming on Netflix, is a captivating argument against those who measure progress with laws that pretend to protect American citizens and amendments, and even to uphold the Constitution. It is a deftly woven and defiant look at how clauses within those amendments (specifically the lauded 13th) and the language of our political system both veil and reveal a profound and devastating truth about America: Slavery was never abolished here, DuVernay and the participants in the film argue. It was simply amended, and it continues to be amended in 2016, with the constant evolution of the criminal justice system. It’s a bold and terrifying statement to make, but in using a documentary instead of, say, a narrative film, DuVernay is able to point directly to that history and to those people who have defined “progress” for black Americans. In doing so, she draws a line directly from the 13th amendment, to today’s America, which has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
One of the most chilling quotes in the documentary comes from Glenn Martin, who declares that “systems of oppression are durable, and they tend to reinvent themselves.” 13th defines slavery and the Jim Crow era as systems of oppression that sought to control, destroy and disenfranchise black bodies and minds in America. Understood this way, there’s little surprise that such systems evolved to create America today, which is now largely defined by its prison population, which itself is largely defined by the disproportionate number of black male and female inmates. DuVernay is joined by scholars including Michelle Alexander, Jelani Cobb, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and many others who argue that the system is not broken; rather, it operates precisely as it has always meant to operate.
13th is an unusual film because it also works as a critique of language itself, where language serves as a system of oppression, or at least, as a contributor to systems of oppression. This clause of the 13th amendment is made up of mere words on a document, which has since determined the lives and deaths of countless black people, supposedly “freed” by the amendment itself. Similarly, 13th presents a powerful case against the word “criminal” which has always been closely connected to black people, especially men. Since the days of the original Birth of a Nation, America has been committed to assigning black men an inherent criminality—thieves and rapists (although, as one scholar points out, white men in America hold the record for interracial rape—a point immediately highlighted with a brief, horrifying clip of Michael Fassbender’s character raping Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsy in 12 Years a Slave). As long as black lives are associated with criminality, it makes sense to much of white America—and, perhaps even more devastatingly, to much of black America—that such lives be caged and struck down. Much like Ken Burns’ Central Park Five and on a much broader scope, 13th shows us how little perspectives have changed. Only our language, perhaps, has “evolved,” but it seems that evolution has only worked to mask many of the underlying truths. 13th reminds us of the time when Donald Trump took out a full page ad in 1989, calling for the death penalty for the five young black teens (later proven innocent). There’s the suggestion that what Trump was really calling for was a lynching, but with language modified for the times. (And isn’t that, in many ways, what he and much of white America got?)
A director with less nuanced sensibilities might have used such an opportunity to highlight Trump’s rise, but DuVernay resists the easy way out. While there is a brilliant montage aligning Trump’s calls to violence against protestors with iconic and still devastating images from the Civil Rights movement, Trump is not the shocking caricature many of us see on TV, in presidential debates and in headlines today. In 13th, Trump is not a monster, or a descendant of Adolf Hitler. Rather, he’s an American, and a descendant of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. DuVernay’s film argues that his remarks about beating up protestors are no more terrifying than Hillary Clinton’s embrace of the racist “superpredator” term. Indeed, if there is one “monster” of the film, it’s probably the organization Alec, whose role in the politics and profiteering of mass incarceration is more frightening than, yes, even a Trump presidency. But even this powerful organization is simply made up of Americans and defined by American history.
Perhaps more than anything, 13th highlights a severe lack of critical thinking and nuanced understanding on the part of all voters. Now that it is no longer in the interest of politicians to maintain the current prison system—the same politicians who helped build it and create it—does it makes sense for American voters to trust those same politicians and the same exact political system that got us here? Now that the language is changing (in the same way that it always has), do we trust those same people who have always been in control of the language we use to talk about black bodies and minds—and the methods we have of dealing with them (as if they are still pieces of property, meant to be dealt with, and parceled off)?
DuVernay’s political story is also, necessarily, deeply personal, and the film takes what feels like a sudden and sharp turn at the introduction of the slain black people who inspired the Black Lives Matter movement. Of all the stories told, Kalief Browder’s is presented under a special lens, in part because his tragic story seems to encapsulate every problem with the system, from the Stop and Frisk approach to policing, to the physical and emotional brutality many inmates suffer in the Land of the Free. Browder was never convicted of a crime, but was killed—in no uncertain terms—by the American justice system. There’s a real patience in DuVernay’s presentation here, and the haunting black-and-white images from the New Yorker’s coverage on Browder linger on the screen, and in one’s mind. She will not allow you to forget him, and the moment inspires great anticipation for Jay Z’s forthcoming HBO series on the life and death of the young man.
How did we arrive at this point in America? It sounds like a complicated question, but 13th embraces the difficult task of answering it. Just like any other nation, America is a product of its own history. Unlike other nations that have sought to deal directly with a dark past, either through reparations, or sincere reformation, America insists on merely redesigning its old, racist and oppressive institutions. Like some of the best documentaries of our time, 13th, therefore, is not just a film, but a demand; it’s a call to reject dangerous reiterations, specifically newer and newer Jim Crows. DuVernay’s work doesn’t expressly name what we might build in their place, but it demands that those of us watching resist the seduction of sameness disguised as slow progress, and imagine something greater (something the Angelas and Assatas and Freds imagined): actual, freedom.
Director: Ava DuVernay
Release Date: September 30, 2016
Shannon M. Houston is the former TV Editor of Paste Magazine, and current Staff Writer on Hulu’s The Looming Tower, as well as a Script Consultant on Season Three of Transparent. This New York-based writer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.