Ava DuVernay’s 13th, currently streaming on Netflix, is more of a document than a documentary. Even though it does not hand down indictments as directly as Michael Moore used to do, there is no doubt that this film shows the side of racial injustice that isn’t often — if ever — told. Thus, it is not about exploring “both sides” of the issue because it does not need to. We already know one side of the story because that’s the side we’ve been sold for centuries. DuVernay is very specifically saying, “This is what has happened to us. This is why it’s still happening. This is why the system to need to be re-examined and reformed.” Although some aspects of the entire story have been told in various PBS documentaries and depicted in fiction narratives, no one has ever put together the whole picture as cohesively as DuVernay has here.
The whole picture starts with a country built on the backs of slave labor, then proceeds with that country trying to take credit for granting slaves their “freedom,” and goes on to trace the continued subjugation of a population that was burdened with the stigma of being seen as criminal invaders up through today. Although Republicans try to insist that our country is now more racist than ever with President Obama in office, the truth is that Obama’s rise and his successful two-term presidency has simply shed light in the dark corners of continued oppression that was always there. If a black man can become President of the United States, why can’t a black man walk down the street without being profiled at best, or shot down summary execution-style, at worst? Why indeed.
DuVernay’s film tracks the sinister fabrication of that image of criminal invader beginning with slavery. How else would “civilized men” justify taking other human beings from their homeland, stripping them of their culture, selling off their children, turning women into sex slaves — unless the slave-trade could dehumanize those people and concoct a myth of fear around them. If we can be convinced to be afraid of them, we feel justified in controlling them with chains, whips, cages, and brutal discipline. The American psyche has never properly dealt with this, nor atoned for it, and has not forgotten it. DuVernay pieces all this together to show how that label of criminal invader has been made to stick. One way came soon after Reconstruction, by creating a free labor force through the pervasive criminalization of black men with ridiculous arrests for things like loitering. It provided a loophole to keep the gravy train of free labor going. The fear of the invader then grew as more and more freed black slaves became incarcerated, a self-perpetuating rationale: black men must be inclined to be criminals because look how many are in jail.
A century of Jim Crow laws in the South drove the point home further, and unjust arrests became more frequent until finally the black community and its leaders had had enough. One might think that it all would have finally come to an end after civil rights laws were enacted, but DuVernay shows how “law and order” candidates immediately emerged with new methods of oppression. Their paranoia and fear-mongering dog whistles increased arrests in black communities, filling up the prison system with millions of young men of color, in yet another way to perpetuate the suspicion that anyone black is probably a criminal. The crack epidemic and drug war allowed authorities to have free reign in making arrests. Widespread “tough on crime” attitudes nation wide led to Bill Clinton’s support of the calamitous 1994 crime bill he signed. (In fact the sharp spike in mass incarceration began in the late 1970s and had already risen steeply in the Reagan era, but the federal Violent Crime Control legislation did indeed facilitate and motivate opportunists in the prison industry.) DuVernay is hard on the Clinton administration, and makes the point that his crime bill did more to harm the black community than the two previous administrations because of the three strikes law.
As a Clinton supporter, I found this part difficult to watch because I remember when Bill Clinton was elected and I know that the crime bill was meant to address concerns from law-abiding members of the black community who were pleading with the government to do something to help protect their children from the scourge of drugs and gangs. DuVernay argues that one of the reasons Clinton won in 1992 was because he promised to crack down on crime, and in so doing signaled that Democrats had moved toward the center. Otherwise, he might not have been elected. That’s sadly an accurate assessment of America’s state of mind back then and it’s accurate now. America is 70% white today, but remember that segment of the population was close to 90% in the 1970 and was still over 80% at the beginning of the 1990s. We need only look at a Trump rally and his disturbingly sturdy poll numbers to estimate that perhaps half of white America is probably still sold, at least subconsciously, on the idea that if you’re black you must be a criminal. The crime bill, I still believe, was signed under the best of intentions. One of the people interviewed in 13th says she believes Bill Clinton’s intentions were not good; she believes he intentionally set out to incarcerate one million black citizens. It’s not my place to say she’s wrong, but we obviously see it differently. And that’s really the point of 13th. Each of us sees it differently. This film is meant to give voice to a side of the story people like me have not heard very often, no matter where we stand on the political spectrum, even if we think we know the history. Undeniably, if we’re white, we cannot know what it feels like to grow up black in America. It’s just not possible.
Ava DuVernay has been slowly building a body of work as one of America’s most versatile and essential film directors. Starting out with heartfelt character studies like I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere, then making a biopic about Martin Luther King, Jr., Selma, and earning a Best Picture nomination, her range and influence continue to expand. She has her own distribution company and is attempting to completely transform how independent cinema is delivered to audiences of color while crossing over to touch the white community. She has made forays into television and this month has shepherded the series premiere of Queen Sugar, an extraordinary new drama exploring the lives of black American families in ways that many TV viewers have never seen. And now she has delved into our nation’s historical record, to correct it, explain it, and lay down an indispensable parallel point of view that can hopefully begin to change things for the future. Yes, you could say Ava DuVernay is now an activist. She’s also an expressive artist whose work always surpasses expectations.
DuVernay has said making 13th was difficult, and that she cried many times in the process of its creation. One of the reasons many Americans don’t look clearly at history and our present day horror is that we as a culture feel deep shame. Unfortunately, that shame often blinds us to the truth. The only way to change things for the better is to see the hard truths as they really are. DuVernay has peeled back a thick and permanent layer and laid bare that truth.
13th is one of the best films of the year.