Coming to theatres tomorrow, Friday, October 7: 13TH
Ava DuVernay’s wide-ranging examination of the systematic criminalization of African Americans made its world premiere last week as the first-ever documentary to open the New York Film Festival. It now comes to VOD exclusively through Netflix, along with a limited theatrical release. It will also screen at DOC NYC next month as part of the Short List section of anticipated awards contenders.
DuVernay’s incendiary film grounds its analysis through a hyper-focused consideration of the 13th amendment to the US Constitution, which abolished slavery but for a critical exception – “except as a punishment for crime.” With that loophole, former slaves – and their descendants, to this day – did not attain freedom, but instead were immediately rebranded as “criminals,” and American slavery merely transformed, rather than vanished. This comes as no major revelation to the bevy of talking head experts, many of them academics, that convey the film’s arguments, but will prove eye-opening to a wider audience, as they learn how, from the very beginning of emancipation, African-Americans were arrested in droves for minor offenses – often related to joblessness or poverty – and punished with forced labor, buoying up the Southern economy which was devastated by the loss of free labor that came with the abolition of slavery. DuVernay follows these historical developments through Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, and the war on drugs, as, increasingly, politicians’ “tough on crime” stances became a veiled way to attack African-Americans, gaining favor with and reassuring white voters, while ultimately opening prison doors en masse to people of color. Where the film stumbles slightly is in its extended consideration of the impact of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) on drafting or supporting legislation like “Stand Your Ground” that has further served to do damage to people of color while simultaneously providing a pipeline to fill member corporations’ for-profit prisons. While the information presented is important, it feels of a different piece with the rest of the film, and, perhaps, deserves its own, separate project. Regardless, DuVernay’s film emerges as a provocative, cogent, and timely analysis of systemic inequality in American, and one that should prove illuminating – if not downright transformative – for viewers.