Ava DuVernay's 13TH
"A work of pummeling and clear-eyed intelligence."
"DuVernay has fashioned a work of pummeling and clear-eyed intelligence, tracing an undeniable disparity between legislative and de facto rights for black Americans from the end of the Civil War to the present," writes Steve Macfarlane at Slant. "How and why the United States ended up housing 2.5 million prison inmates is a paradox posed by none other than President Obama in the film's first minutes, and 13TH spells it out with the enraged mettle of an extralegal filibuster. The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery except as punishment for a convicted crime; 'criminal' is thus the noun into which 13TH digs its analyses, while an upward ticker sees the number of prison inmates mushrooming over the last few decades."
"When Jim Crow laws yielded to the civil-rights movement in the 1960s," writes the New Yorker's Richard Brody, "Richard Nixon’s 'Southern strategy' and 'law and order' campaign—which endure to this day—aimed to keep black citizens subjugated and out of power. DuVernay shows Ronald Reagan’s 'war on drugs,' his economic policies, and his efforts at voter suppression to be a part of the same strategy. Meanwhile, DuVernay traces the rising number of black prisoners (Bill Clinton’s policies, many undertaken with the support of black politicians, were also to blame) as well as the widespread tolerance of police violence against black people, linking legal depravities to entrenched economic interests."
"Like most middle-class white liberals, I am concerned with the issue of racial inequality, but tend to assuage my feelings of anger, guilt and impotence with the sentiment that things are getting better," writes Jordan Hoffman for the Guardian. "13TH is an articulate, no-nonsense cup of iced water splashed in my face telling me to wake the fuck up…. It wasn’t as if people suddenly decided to commit a greater number of low-level crimes; there was (and is) a concerted effort to entrap disenfranchised African-American communities with mandatory minimums, plea-bargaining arrangements, different sentences between crack and powder cocaine, programs like three-strikes-and-you’re-out and stop-and-frisk."
Introducing his interview with DuVernay for Film Comment, Ashley Clark writes: "Underscoring DuVernay’s clout, 13TH features a vast range of insightful, high-profile talking heads, including Michelle Alexander—author of The New Jim Crow, about the prison-industrial complex, an evident guiding light for the film—and legendary activist Angela Davis. Political advocate Van Jones is especially engaging; his live-wire observations on historical FBI chicanery, Nixon’s Southern strategy, and the systematic decimation of black leadership, from the assassinations of Fred Hampton and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the current exile of activist Assata Shakur, are at once riveting and infuriating. This patchwork of smart critical voices lends the film an absorbing, immersive quality."
"13TH is the first documentary ever to be selected as the opening-night film of The New York Film Festival," notes Variety's Owen Gleiberman, and "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."
As the Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy sees it, 13TH argues "that the bedrock social problem for the American black population—and arguably for the nation as a whole—since the Civil War has been the perpetuation of 'a myth of black criminality,' as it's put by African-American studies scholar Jelani Cobb. In reaction to white social, physical and sexual fears came entrenched segregation, voting restrictions, highly prohibitive Jim Crow laws in the South and other nation-wide social 'norms' too numerous to list, from segregated schools to the absence blacks in the FBI and on professional sports teams."
"Sprawling in size and scope, DuVernay’s doc essentially takes on the entire history of post-abolition racial inequality in the US," notes Rodrigo Perez at the Playlist, and Indiewire's Eric Kohn finds that the "broad scope is made palatable by the consistency of its focus, and the collective anger it represents."
James Hannaham talks with DuVernay for the Voice: "So what, DuVernay's film leaves us wondering, can we do about this corrupt system? 'Oh, it definitely needs to be dismantled,' she says. 'I'm a prison abolitionist for sure. The system needs to be done away with and [we have to] start over.'"
And Jamiles Lartey interviews her for the Guardian: “My hope for the film is simply that people come out more aware that prison isn’t just a place where bad people go. The hope is that we re-examine why we think what we think and question ‘have we been taught to think that?’ and ‘have we been manipulated to think that?’”
Updates, 10/1: "The film builds its case piece by shattering piece, inspiring levels of shock and outrage that stun the viewer, leaving one shaken and disturbed before closing out on a visual note of hope designed to keep us on the hook as advocates for change," writes Odie Henderson for RogerEbert.com. "Between the lines, 13TH boldly asks the question if African-Americans were actually ever truly 'free' in this country. We are freer, as this generation has it a lot easier than our ancestors who were enslaved, but the question of being as completely 'free' as our White compatriots hangs in the air. If not, will the day come when all things will be equal? The final takeaway of 13TH is that change must come not from politicians, but from the hearts and minds of the American people."
"13TH covers a lot of ground," writes Vikram Murthi for Movie Mezzanine. "Much of the credit for the efficacy goes to editor Spencer Averick, who manages to coherently string together a compelling moral and political analysis of 150 years of American history. On face, this reads like the literal job description required for the film, but the complexity of DuVernay’s investigation and the scrutiny of multiple histories renders it a difficult task. Averick excels at keeping 13TH nimble and pointed, spending just the right amount of time on every development while communicating the cause-and-effect relationship between each of them without belaboring its significance."
Updates, 10/2: The 13th amendment "freed the slaves—but left them to their own devices in a crushed economy and a predatory culture," writes New York's David Edelstein. "The irony, DuVernay says, is that the culture promptly recast blacks as the predators, the threats to social order as well as the virtue of white women. She invokes D.W. Griffith’s 1919 The Birth of a Nation to far greater effect than Nate Parker in his shockingly crude new film of the same name."
"Few films shake and astonish like this one, even though nothing in it should be a surprise," writes Alan Scherstuhl in the Voice. "For 100 brisk, despairing minutes, DuVernay exposes the historical continuity of anti-black law and order, that unrelenting abuse of black bodies in the name of white safety. She draws bold correspondence between back then and right the hell now, tracing the incremental and systemic cruelties and stupidities that have, over decades, officially institutionalized that fearful white impulse to punish black men—and dressed it up as tough-on-crime common sense."
For Time Out's Dave Calhoun, "DuVernay’s dense, pulsating, overwhelming documentary on racial inequality in the US is so full of facts, voices, passion and wisdom that it’s almost impossible to keep up. But what comes across loud and clear is that this is a serious, timely, important film whose highways and byways of thought are worth traveling for anyone who cares to understand why, as DuVernay argues, slavery didn’t end with slavery."
"In 1972, there were just over three-hundred thousand souls incarcerated in the United States, and today, that number has risen astronomically to well over two million," notes Aramide A. Tinubu at Shadow and Act. "The War on Drugs tells only half the story. Policies like mandatory sentencing minimums, laws written by The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and the wretched state of our bail and parole systems, have been centuries in the making. Also, as DuVernay impresses upon us in 13TH, there has been, and continues to be a relentless dehumanizing rhetoric surrounding Black people, depicting us as menacing criminals, or the favored buzzword of the 90s, 'superpredators,' along with unending racism—all of which have contributed to this moment."
TheWrap's Alonso Duralde: "DuVernay isn’t interested in the impossible, and often absurd, goal of 'balance,' despite the squirrely presence of Grover Norquist and a lobbyist-apologist; she wants to make you feel something. And she succeeds."
For the Los Angeles Times, Steven Zeitchik talks with DuVernay on "the set of her new movie A Wrinkle in Time," in which she notes "earlier films and characters, such as Ralph Bordelon and Too Sweet in her OWN series Queen Sugar, that address the human side of imprisonment. 'The "why now" is that it’s a story I’ve been telling and talking about for a while.'"
Updates, 10/6: For the Atlantic, Juleyka Lantigua-Williams talks with DuVernay "about her words, about her intent, and about how she came to listen so well and hear so clearly."
And for the New York Times, Cara Buckley talks with her about "how prisoners are being enslaved, why she chose to hire only women to direct her television show and why she dislikes the word 'diversity.'"
— 13TH (@13THFilm) October 12, 2016
Listening (79'29") from the Film Society of Lincoln Center: "The day after the premiere, we welcomed Ashley Clark (BFI, The Guardian, Film Comment), Jelani Cobb (The New Yorker, The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress), Malkia Cyril (Center for Media Justice), Kevin Gannon (Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning), and Khalil Gibran Muhammad (former Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture) for a panel discussion moderated by the Film Society’s Deputy Director Eugene Hernandez."
And you can listen to DuVernay discuss the film at Women and Hollywood (22'05").
Updates, 10/7: "Is there too much here for one film?" asks A.A. Dowd at the AV Club.
13TH could have run 13 hours, as an O.J.: Made in America-style miniseries, and it would probably still seem a little out of breath. But even when stretching itself thin, this ambitious, complex take on American values never seems to be simplifying its arguments. Part of the movie’s power comes from the way it puts everything in context, drawing connections across decades and tying all its loose strands together in a way that supports one interviewee’s assertion that “systems of oppression are durable,” that they “reinvent themselves.” Besides, no more than a few minutes ever pass without some enraging illustration, such as the moment where DuVernay strings together several caught-on-tape shootings of unarmed black civilians into a kind of devastating supercut of injustice. A vital state-of-the-union address, 13TH connects yesterday’s America to today’s, showing that—for as far as we’ve come—the big difference between them isn’t nearly big enough.
More from Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 4/5) and Nick Newman (Film Stage, A-).
Update, 10/18: "I cannot tell you how it might feel to watch 13th as an African American," writes Stuart Klawans in the Nation. "My response is that of a supposedly white person (as [James] Baldwin might have called me) who had many of the facts already at his command when he entered the theater but was not prepared for the cumulative force that DuVernay gives them. She piles up information until it becomes emotional knowledge—and it’s awful."
Update, 12/14: A.S. Hamrah in n+1: "Smartphone video cameras and streaming media, in 13th, are explicitly positioned against the cinema, which, starting with Griffith’s white-supremacist epic, encouraged the racism that continues to echo in Hollywood a hundred years after his film. The radicalism of opening a film festival with this message (while also ceding the streaming future by handing Netflix this honor) was acknowledged by DuVernay, if no one else."