The New York Film Festival really got it right this year, opening for the first time in its 54-year history with a documentary. Not just any documentary, but Ava DuVernay’s triumphal, extraordinary historic “The 13th.” The NYFF has never before opened its great festival with a doc but they’ve chosen a stunning film to mark this milestone. “The 13th” — as in the Thirteen Amendment — is an instant classic, and may be the first documentary in history to be considered for Best Picture by the Academy. More importantly it’s going to be an instrument of change.
It stands a fine chance of landing a Best Documentary nomination for the multi-talented Ms. DuVernay, and could bust out of that category completely and into Best Picture. It certainly is worthy of the distinction, so overwhelming and powerful is its achievement. Breathtaking in its size and scope, The 13th pulls no punches as DuVernay relentlessly explores the entire history of racial prejudice in America, from the days slavery to its supposed abolition when Congress adopted the 13th Amendment.
The Thirteen Amendment declares “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duty convicted, shall exist within the United States.” From that subordinate clause, as DuVernay lays out with galvanic clarity, comes today’s intolerable incarceration of upwards of two million souls in a prison system that is bursting at the seams.
President Obama begins the film by somberly stating that one in three African-American men will spend some part of their lifetime in jail. The statistics and the facts and the images that DuVernay relentlessly lay out had me shaking my head in disbelief at the jaw-dropping horror she depicts. Over and over again.
There are many remarkable grace notes, main among them the testimony of the iconic civil rights figure Angela Davis, her beautiful face now encircled by a cloud of a white hair. Wearing her famous afro like a halo. She relates her experiences in the inspired setting of an abandoned 19th-century railway station. And at the end of the film there are dissonant black-and-white photos of African Americans relaxing, playing with their children and having fun in face of unimaginable oppression.
In the invaluable Q&A after the film, when asked about those picture, DuVernay simply said, “They are Black Joy. I just didn’t want to express the suffering.” But of course, she did.
Her research is so all-encompassing, the archival footage so exhaustive and comprehensive, and her filmmaker’s anger at the continuing injustice and prejudice of America’s judicial system so intense that the one-hundred minutes of the film just fly by, resonating with tremendous outrage.
But DuVernay made the point to an audience that greeted her with a standing ovation, that “Yes, times are better now. My life is better than my mother’s was. And her life was better than her mother’s was,” but of course there was no need to say the obvious: how very far as a society we have yet to go.
She also cited how much progress that there’s been in “the transgender movement and the treatment of trans people. In just five years, so much has changed for them,” drawing a parallel with the Civil Rights movement and responding to the question of “Have things changed? Can a simple movie change things?”
DuVernay ends her film with clips of Donald Trump, behaving for all the world like the ranting Ku Klux Klan members he so closely resembles. He’s intercut with said members depicted in D.W. Griffith’s classic 1915 silent film “The Birth of a Nation.” Cheers greeted Hilary Clinton’s appearance on screen speaking out as a symbol of hope.
“The 13th”s achievement is so massive I feel words can barely encompass the impact it is going to have. This is a film that will affect all who see it. It will change hearts, minds and lives. It is a pure polemic, an undeniable call to action.
After being denied a nomination for directing “Selma” a year ago, the radiantly talented Ava DuVernay may very well win an Oscar this year, and will continue to make history where ever she turns her volcanic attention. Brava!