What do we mean when we call a film, particularly a documentary, “important”?
Ava DuVernay is certainly an important filmmaker, both as an artist and as an advocate for positive change in a white- and male-dominated industry. Her third feature documentary, 13th, has been greeted accordingly. Anointed by the New York Film Festival and granted an enormous platform by Netflix, its release is a major event.
Yet 13th isn’t nearly as narrowly focused as many of the politically motivated documentaries that garner similar attention. Its target isn’t as small as a court case or even a single industry. Its subject is the systematic abuse of black labor and black bodies since the end of the Civil War. It gradually focuses in on the 21st century manifestation of the prison industrial complex, but that’s hardly small potatoes. It is, to say the least, an overwhelming document.
DuVernay, at the film’s world premiere press conference, said that she considers 13th to be a “primer.” She has no interest in replacing the more targeted work of her fellow filmmakers, such as Dawn Porter (Gideon’s Army) and Samuel Pollard (Slavery by Another Name). Rather, 13th is an introduction to this overwhelming history of injustice, a resource for those who may not have read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy or Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.
With such an ambitious goal, it’s frankly miraculous that 13th moves as assuredly as it does. It begins with the titular amendment itself. Its language, which outlaws slavery in all cases “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” opened an enormous loophole through which mass incarceration has grown.
The subsequent hour and a half chronicles the political and cultural criminalization of black lives. There is an extended analysis of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, which brought new life to the Ku Klux Klan and stamped American culture with the pernicious stereotype of predatory black male sexuality. The administrations of Nixon, Reagan and Clinton are each taken to task for their “law & order” politics, a cynical electoral strategy that led to an astonishing increase in incarceration. ALEC, the clumsily secretive alliance between corporations and politicians, is given a particularly spirited and thorough critique.
As the film lunges forward with the hurried inevitability of history, the segments are held together with stylistic flourishes. The soundtrack is as musically diverse as it is tonally unified, fired up tracks that range from hip hop to classical vocals. Song lyrics blaze on the screen with brash black and white graphics, forever circling back to the word “CRIMINAL.”
Yet despite the compelling array of images and sounds, it’s hard to shake the notion that DuVernay is hemmed in by the restrictions of time and genre. She often strikes out from the typical aesthetics of the archival issue film, but finds mixed success.
The film’s expert interviews were shot in unique locations, most of them featuring brick and steel. The election of Ronald Reagan is met by a smash cut to Angela Davis, seated in a cavernous abandoned train station. The look on her face, bolstered by the architectural power behind her, is an instant, immensely powerful condemnation of the president’s brutal legacy.
Other times, though, the innovation backfires. Profile shots occasionally show subjects speaking in odd directions, an example of stylistic innovation backfiring. The archival footage is also a mixed bag. At least one montage feels like a standard “march of time,” using images that we’ve seen hundreds of times. The interjection of a scene from 12 Years a Slave strikes a strange note in a film that uses no other contemporary cinema as evidence.
Yet for each moment like this, there are just as many that soar. DuVernay matches audio of Donald Trump’s racist incitements to archival images of racist violence from the full breadth of America’s history. Later, footage of recent instances of police brutality are cut together with astonishing deliberateness. Coming close to the end, it is a visceral message that this fight is not over, that we cannot sit in the wake of the 13th Amendment as if it were progress enough.
DuVernay’s accomplishment is more than a simple call to action, however. 13th reframes the conventional wisdom of American racial and political history. Those who moved to the cities of the North during the Great Migration did not do so out of economic aspiration, they were “refugees from terror.” The War on Drugs has helped establish a justice system in which people are sent to prison as a result of their relative wealth, not their culpability. The 13th Amendment did not end slavery. There is “no understanding of American political culture without race at the center of it.”
And so, with all of these specific accomplishments, it is perhaps silly to criticize the film for the limitations of its genre and running time. It is, after all, only a primer. Yet it’s hard not to think about what might have been. 13th crams an astonishing amount of historical material into less than 2 hours of informative, emotionally potent segments. One can only imagine what an artist with DuVernay’s instincts could do with the time and the resources allotted to Shoah or Eyes on the Prize, long-form nonfiction with room to breathe. If Netflix is now in the business of commissioning documentaries from the greatest working American filmmakers, perhaps it would also be in their interest to fund the next wave of epoch-defining nonfiction.