13th (2016)

brooke Dang. This documentary is powerful and made me feel heavy.

casey I have an operating hypothesis, which is that America is essentially depraved and bad, and 13th didn’t do much to disabuse me of that notion. But Ava DuVernay is a good enough filmmaker that her documentary on mass incarceration in America is a real gut punch even if, sadly, not much of it came as a surprise.

brooke gut kick, more like…

casey And for folks who haven’t really thought about this stuff… buckle up, because this is the kind of thing every American should have to confront. 13th is well-made, enjoyable to watch (if that’s an appropriate way to describe its inherently grim material), and I can’t imagine anybody viewing with an open mind and not admitting that we’ve got some major issues.

brooke Yes. One of the only things I don’t like about a movie like 13th is that it feels like there’s nothing I can do to fix the problem of how our country treats African Americans and funnels so many of them through our prisons.

casey Its scope is broad, tracing the early roots of black incarceration to the post Civil War South, which used punitive laws partly as a means of effectively re-enslaving freed black workers–under the Constitution’s 13th amendment imprisoned people are exempted from prohibitions against “slavery or involuntary servitude.” From there the narrative races through Jim Crow, the Civil Rights era, and through the present day, where incarceration rates have exploded and continue to disproportionately victimize black citizens. DuVernay weaves together interviews, archival footage, and striking graphics to develop a compelling argument that none of this is accidental, but part of an ongoing cultural project of criminalizing blackness.

brooke I loved the interviews and think they are the perfect example of DuVernay’s decisions through the film-making process. The vast majority of interviewees are educated people of color, there to talk about their own history, and the spaces and angles she uses are beautiful, literally shedding light on the interviewees as they tackle an ugly topic.
She also uses archival footage of black activists to bring a sense of the past to the present, modernizing a now centuries-old struggle between entrenched white colonialism and more recent black liberation movements.

casey She interviews a few conservative pundits as a sort of counterpoint to the narrative. The representative of lobbying group ALEC comes off as such a self-contradictory buffoon that it’s depressing to think that his organization’s laws have ruined so many lives. In today’s political climate I don’t know if a documentary like this will change many minds, but I hope it gets a wide audience.

brooke If it had just been a short film of infographics showing the dramatic rise in imprisonment set to music, it still would have been interesting because the data itself is compelling. But the interviews, footage, and story that surround that data form a powerful thesis of how our prison systems uphold institutionalized racism.

casey It skims through a lot very quickly, so I think it works best as a launching point for further study. And I guess the fact that that people across the political spectrum are beginning to acknowledge the problem at all is a ray of light. 13th ends with a warning that the prison industrial complex is already preparing for its next phase, but also with a call to action to understand what’s happening and to work to change it before future generations are destroyed as well.

brooke And it’s a pretty solid introduction to institutionalized racism for those who are curious but not yet convinced that the system is built for minorities to fail. I’d recommend  13th to anyone interested in learning how the worst kind of structural racism works in the real world.


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