By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
I don’t really have clever/cutesy/insightful way to kick of this review, so let’s just get right to it.
Ava Duvernay’s latest film is a documentary about the systematic inequality Black Americans face, but in particular one system- the almost unfortunately ironically named Criminal Justice System.
Neither ‘Criminal’ nor ‘Justice’ had anything to do with what happened to Khalief Browder, certainly.
The 13th makes a damning case against the 13th Amendment, or more specifically, against the “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” clause and it’s potential for and literal perversion, both almost immediately after Civil War and up to and including the present, in which the Land of the Free boasts one quarter of the world’s incarcerated, despite only comprising one twentieth of its population.
Great company, eh?
Duvernay wrangles a huge diversity of interviewees, including folks you wouldn’t necessarily think would agree to speak on this topic like Newt Gingrich and Charles Rangel, but despite their political points of view or history with the issue, their message is almost uniformly the same- the politics of incarceration in this country have always had a racial bent and been used as a dog-whistle for a clearly still substantial voter base, prison-stuffing programs like the War on Drugs were mistakes from the beginning, and too much of this staggeringly complex and difficult place we’ve found ourselves in as a nation and a collection of peoples came about because of political strategy, rhetoric and control, knowingly and maybe even more tragically, unintentionally.
She also pulls together a stunning amount of historical footage, including all of the Bushes, Clintons, and Trump and so many more, of politicians playing this card to further their own interests. Some may have learned, some may have never cared and still don’t, but it doesn’t really matter- very few politicians are clean on this issue, and until we make this bullshit more of a political liability than asset, they’ll keep doing it. Good luck, us.
DuVernay cuts this all together so The 13th flies by without ever feeling like it glosses over anything. The presentation is very energetic, full of eye-catching graphics and dynamic framing of interviewees, backed with a propulsive soundtrack including original music by Jason Moran and contemporary rap cuts, including a powerful one from Common over the titles showing vintage photos of Black Americans just… being American. Participating in a society that’s mistreated them at every turn.
Where the documentary really takes hold, after all the history lessons, is in its breakdown of where we are at now, and how we continue down this shameful path even today, passing one horrific bill after another blurring the lines between public and private interests and serving & protecting vs doing battle with an enemy, an other.
While our self-control is much better, even we can admit we’re not that good.
When I said “their message is almost uniformly the same” earlier, the caveat was for one interviewee- a smarmy ALEC representative who I can’t even give enough of a fuck to look up the name of, a mustache-twirling corporate apologist who would get called out as unbelievably over the top in a fiction film. The way he both downplays his organization’s role in the ever-worsening state of this issue and praises “humane alternatives” like GPS tracking and home detainment will get your skin crawling faster than any H.R. Giger painting.
The juxtaposition of Trump rally violence and violence against blacks in 1950s black and white, with Trump’s own damning incitements to violence playing over it at the end really is the icing on the cake. We’ve entered an age where the whistles don’t even need to be made for the dogs in our society any more. Now they’re blowing the loudest whistles they can get their hands on, and they’re oh so proud. The film ends with powerful final lines- we’re living history now, and what we do will be judged by future generations.
The 13th sprints, so it doesn’t cover any history beyond the stuff an informed person already knows- it doesn’t really dive any deeper than a introductory college course on the subject, and perhaps it doesn’t need to. It’s all about presentation and accessibility, in the end.
The 13th will anger you, whatever your political views. Here’s hoping it angers us all into making the changes America desperately needs.
The 13th (2016) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for incontrovertible statistics
Take a Drink: for horrifying utterances
Take a Drink: for more horrifying imagery
Take a Drink: for each new interviewee
Do a Shot: for major party shifts
Do a Shot: when you need one