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Review: The 13th – a sobering history lesson on the state of the Union

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By Annika Andersson, Contributing Writer, October 7, 2016

Director Ava DuVernay’s latest documentary is a time travel through African-American history from the Civil War up until today. The 13th amendment abolished involuntary servitude in the United States, except as a punishment for crime. The film The 13th explores how the lucrative trade in people did not cease with the law’s abolishment on January 31, 1865. Instead, it focuses on the African-American history within the economic context, which DuVernay likens to a revolving door; go out this way and be free, then we lock you up the other way and continue making money off of you.

Needless to say, there was no help or program offered for traumatized former slaves to transition into society as equals. Instead, “loitering” and “vagrancy” became punishable crimes. DuVernay continues the journey through history with a recurring timeline, stating the number of imprisoned African-Americans. The graph makes a slight curve rising evenly up until the 70’s, when it increases in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement. This is around the time when voters in the South made a U-turn going from supporting Democrats to Republicans, after President Nixon’s aide John Ehrlichman identified the domestic enemy as being the anti-war left and African-Americans.

Then a crime bill was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, and the federal prison population nearly doubled between 1990 and 2000. The crime bill called for filling up the nation’s prisons, of which many are run by private companies. The film shows how they operate like sweatshops, and make substantial profits off of a prisoner, who after the “three strikes” rule provide a lifetime of labor.

The crime bill also included mandatory minimum sentencing and diminished chances for parole, which also diminishes a smooth transition back into society. If you’re African-American and born today, you have a 1 in 3 chance of spending some time in prison or jail. The worst part of the system may be that 97 percent of all inmates are incarcerated due to plea bargains, and never even go to trial. The result is overcrowded prisons, and Clinton has later been known to regret the bill.

DuVernay’s film is one-sided by it’s very nature, and it offers no solution, but it’s a story that needs to be told. Be prepared for some strong images—it’s not easy to watch real life murders. The 13th was chosen as this year’s opening-night film of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New York Film Festival, and is the first documentary ever accorded that prestigious position in the festival’s 54 year history.


The 13th; Director: Ava DuVernay. Produced by Kandoo Films. Reviewed from a Special Screening at Crosby Street Hotel, 79 Crosby Street, New York, October 1, 2016. Not rated. Running time: 100 minutes. Release date: October 7, 2016 on Netflix.

To read more reviews from Annika Andersson and other film-related features, click here.



Ava DuVernay was present at a special screening at the Crosby Street Hotel in New York on October 1, and offered some further insights during a Q&A following the screening.

Ava DuVernay Q&A copy

DuVernay on how narrative filmmaking impacted her approach to making documentaries:

Well, I started as a documentary filmmaker. This is my fourth doc. A lot of people think I was born with Selma, in Selma, on Selma, at Selma, [laughs] but actually Selma was my sixth film. […] With doc films, I’ve always felt much more comfortable, and so it feels like coming home.

DuVernay on the importance of using cell phone footage of the victims in her film:

As we are bombarded with images of black bodies being shot, it’s an issue of self care in the black community in terms of watching those traumatic images. It’s hard to watch murders. These are murders, cold- blooded murders. You can go to your Twitter timeline, I went to my Twitter timeline this morning, and there was the latest shooting of a mentally ill man, who’s sister called for help, said on the 911 tape ’he’s unarmed and he’s mentally ill.’ He’s not coming for them, he’s not doing anything, he holds up a vape pen and they shoot him right there. Now, that image, the actual shooting, was just on my timeline, from a website that’s well-known, and made a little GIF of it. […] I think it does do something to just see it. Even though it hurts, we should bear witness to it.

DuVernay on the ethics of showing real life murders in her film:

Imagine if that was your loved one’s last moment? So, the idea that I would put someone’s loved one’s last moment in this film, without asking for their permission, even though they don’t own it… These people don’t own that footage. That footage is usually owned by the person who took the image, or sold the image. We’d still make the call to say ’would you give us permission to do it.’

DuVernay onthe emotional toll of making this film:

It was tough. I cried a lot making this. It’s emotionally exhausting, I went straight from Selma to this. I though I was going to be strong, because I’d directed people in Selma hurt each other, when they said ’you beat her, then you fall over, then you yell, then he comes over’ and we’d clock those scenes of tragedy and horror. […] But it was even worse to watch real footage, hours of violence and racism. There are some things that I just couldn’t watch more than once. There is one piece in this that makes me cry every time I see it. I walk out of the theater when it comes on […] We call it the man with the hat. And with a very elegant dressed man, he’s just trying to cross the street, and an angry white mob continues to attack him, and he just continues to pick up his hat, brushing it off and tries to put it back on. Eventually, when you continue to watch this footage he just clutches his hat, that’s all he has. It breaks me, every time. That man eventually died of his injuries that day, because what you don’t see in the footage is he continues down the street and get beaten half to death. So those kind of images are really really challenging to do, but they must be done.

DuVernay on the future for minorities:

I believe that if people change, this problem changes, and I know that to be true from the women’s rights movement, the civil right movement, LGBT rights movement… I mean, just imagine, three years ago no one was talking about transgender, nobody besides transgender people and their families cared, even knew what the fight was, even internalized and said ’WOW, it’s a crime,’ even if that’s who you are, that’s how you identify… Who knew? A lack of knowledge and awareness about it made us stigmatize and ostracize and make life difficult for a certain group of people. The same thing is happening here, you don’t know, you don’t know about that loophole, you don’t know about black history, you don’t know how we got to this—where people actually had to say onscreen and protest and be on the streets saying ’Black Lives Matters,’ where is that from? And so my hope is that you see this, and we start to change as people, and we start to think twice about how we treat each other.

DuVernay on algorithm biases preventing us from seeing real news:

Mainstream news it not real news. I was just over doing an interview with the folks at Democracy Now, and I said to them ’you have real news, you get deeply into it,’ some investigation, talking to sources directly, not picking up from AP, not picking up from such and such, distilling things down to a paragraph because they think we’re too dumb to know more, not knowing anything about the rest of the world, what’s happening in the rest of the world? We’re blind, we do not know… can anyone name 10 leaders of nations outside of Britain and France? No, most Americans, 98 percent of Americans cannot name 10 leaders of nations outside the big three. We’ve allowed ourselves to become ignorant. I’m a Twitter stalker, I’m down on it, I’m all over Twitter, Facebook, Instagram… You know, there are limits to the information I can get there, I just seek out what I want to know and I have to be responsible for my own education. So yes, the algorithm, it’s a thing, but it’s no different from what NBC feeds me, you know what I mean? No disrespect to anyone out there on NBC [laughs].


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