Ava DuVernay’s “13TH” is the first documentary ever to be selected as the opening-night film of The New York Film Festival. (It premieres at Lincoln Center on Sept. 30.) That lends a momentous aura to what is already, each year, a momentous event. In this case, the precedent feels spiritually right. Movies, as both a business and an entertainment form, are struggling to define themselves in the 21st century, but there’s no doubt that we’re in the high renaissance era of documentary. Each week, every day, in theaters and on VOD, on cable channels and networks and streaming services, you can see movies that dive into topical issues with the investigative fury we once expected from newspapers. You can see movies that conjure (as maybe only movies can) the ghosts and artifacts and living semiotics of history, and that hold you in their grip with a force and excitement that match that of any dramatic feature. “13TH” is a movie that does all those things at once. More than just another documentary, it’s a crucial and stirring document — of racism and injustice, of politics and the big-picture design of America — that, I think, will be watched and referenced for years to come.
DuVernay, the brilliant director of “Selma,” has made a film that possesses a piercing relevance in the age of Black Lives Matter and the unspeakable horror and tragedy of escalated police shootings. “13TH” looks at the current American state of “mass incarceration,” a phrase that has quickly grown numbing with repetition; DuVernay puts the (disturbing) feeling back into it. She takes off from an era in which our nation — as President Obama observes in the film’s opening moments — contains just 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners. DuVernay’s chronicle of this crisis is heartrending and enraging; if that’s all the movie did, it would be invaluable. Yet “13TH” also travels deep into history, connecting every link in the chain to reveal how we got here. The metaphor is intentional: DuVernay’s message is that the psychodynamics of slavery, and the economic logistics of it, have never gone away. Instead, they went underground, mutating into different forms (Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the “war on drugs”) as the decades rolled on.
That’s a bold thesis, one you might imagine will put certain audiences on the defensive. DuVernay, though, works with a slow, sure hand that never risks oversimplifying the past. On the contrary, she brings the psychological history of what has gone on in this country to life in a way that few mainstream investigations or (God help us) liberal message movies have done. When you watch “13TH,” you feel that you’re seeing an essential dimension of America with new vision. That’s what a cathartically clear-eyed work of documentary art can do.
DuVernay, of course, is far from the first social critic to observe that slavery, for all practical purposes, didn’t end in 1865. Yet she examines its legacy with freshly devastating insight. In recent years, “The Birth of a Nation,” the 1915 D.W. Griffith landmark that essentially invented feature filmmaking as we know it, has been treated as such a racist pariah of a movie that its very existence has, to a degree, been shunned. The film’s racism (more than racism; let’s call it what it was — an exhortation to terrorism and racist violence) is undeniable, a stain on our country and the DNA of its popular culture. Yet Griffith’s power as a filmmaker is relevant as well, and DuVernay explores the movie in all its contradictions. The African-American Studies scholar Jelani Cobb unpacks “The Birth of a Nation” with blistering eloquence, describing how Griffith, in his portrayal of the second coming of the Ku Klux Klan, invented the image of the burning cross, and how the film offered “a tremendously accurate prediction of how race would operate in the United States.” Yet where does the escalation of that oppression turn into the rise of prison culture?
“13TH” traces the connection back to the end of the Civil War, and — in a grand horrific irony — to the passage of the 13th Amendment itself, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” This meant that once the war was over, former slaves could be arrested on trivial charges like vagrancy and loitering and turned into prisoners, and just like that…they were slaves again. Hence the image of men singing spirituals on the chain gang: a kind of legalized slavery. The link to “The Birth of a Nation” is that Griffith, working with actors in blackface, took the image of the “black criminal” and turned it into a demonic mythology that undergirded the 20th century. The “black criminal” became a monster to be feared and repressed, resulting in a vicious cycle that continues to this day: the presumption of black guilt in crime, leading to conviction, leading to incarceration, leading to a de facto systemization of imprisonment that is really the ethos of slavery in disguise.
In “13TH,” this narrative of racial tyranny is told with a nimble cinematic power that awakens your senses even as it sickens your moral center. Yet the film doesn’t become revelatory until it reaches the Civil Rights era, a moment when a lot of people (i.e., white liberals) began to congratulate themselves for having finally confronted the great American race problem and taken the big steps to “solve” it. Even if you acknowledged that we still had miles to go, no one denied that the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — and the slow prying apart of cultural barriers that had begun to take place in the ’60s — amounted to the stirrings of a revolution. What DuVernay homes in on is the calculated counterattack waged by the establishment.
We all know about the rise, within the Republican Party, of the Southern strategy, though DuVernay features an extraordinary audio recording of Lee Atwater articulating it that puts a chill in your bones. And we know about the cataclysm of the assassinations, from Malcolm to Martin to Fred Hampton — though Van Jones testifies, with furious insight, about how terrifyingly it damaged the black community to have an entire generation of leaders stripped away. But the leap of perception made by “13TH” is to demonstrate how the Civil Rights movement, in spelling the end of the Jim Crow era, caused the white power structure to ask: What can we put in its place? How can we continue to segregate? The answer was the “war on crime” and the “war on drugs.” They were born together in the Nixon era, and they were always code for “Let’s put them behind bars.” DuVernay plays astonishing recorded testimony from John Ehrlichman, the Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs, in which he admits that the government created a crackdown that targeted left-wing dissidents…and black people. But always with the excuse of fighting the drug scourge. “Did we know we were lying about the drugs?” asks Ehrlichman. “Of course we did.”
The “war on drugs” is, of course, far more associated with President Reagan, who launched his version in 1982 (with Nancy shouting “Just say no!” like a cheerleader from the sidelines). Many people reflexively went along with it, precisely because defending serious drug use never seemed like a viable alternative position. What happened, though, was that a health issue got turned into a crime issue. And selectively, hypocritically so. Think about it: If you learned today that a family member, or friend, or work colleague was a heroin addict, would you react by calling the police and having that person arrested? That would seem insane — but that’s what we did as a culture to thousands of inner-city drug abusers. In recent years, there has been much liberal criticism of the war on drugs as an epic waste of money and resources, but “13TH” — rightly — recontextualizes the war on drugs as a race war.
DuVernay keeps flashing a time-clock of the rising prison population. In 1970, it was 357,292, and by 1980 it had risen it 513,900. In 1990, it was 1,179,200, and it is currently 2.3 million. (Forty percent of those prisoners are African-American.) It’s the biggest U.S. growth industry! The terrible thing is, I’m not joking. DuVernay anatomizes the racist and capitalist underpinnings of the era of mass incarceration in a way that makes “13TH” an indelible act of social-political inquiry. The movie fills in each level of how it works, starting with the rise of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the lobbying club on steroids that unites corporate leaders and politicians, so that the corporate leaders can write big checks and craft the legislation that is then “recommended” to Congress. As the film reveals, it was ALEC that came up with the cornerstones of President Clinton’s 1994 crime bill: the mandatory sentencing, the “three strikes” clause, and so on.
The conflict of interest is stunning. For a long time, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest private prison company, was a member of ALEC, and so was Wal-Mart, which had a vested interested in playing up “stand your ground” laws because the result of those laws is that gun sales shot up (and Wal-Mart is a major merchandiser of firearms). The very notion that the American prison system is now being run by private corporations, with a profiteering interest in maintaining a large prison population, represents a fundamental — and indefensible — transfer of power in our society. The entire prison system has become a racket. The word for that situation is…well, I’m a film critic, not an editorial writer, so I won’t say the word. What I will say is: Watch “13TH” and draw your own conclusion.
There are some who may carp at the powerful case Ava DuVernay makes in “13TH.” Because her take on these issues is complex, she can’t point every time to a smoking gun (though her film has several holsters’ worth of them). Yet one of the staggering things this movie captures is how racism could be the driving force behind something as seismic as the rise of mass incarceration in America, yet that racism could remain in many ways “invisible.” So some people will be driven to say the racism isn’t there. But what they’re really saying is: It’s not a white people problem. A film as starkly humane as “13TH” makes you realize that it’s everyone’s problem.