The strangest thing about having a successful film, “which I never thought I’d experience,” Ava DuVernay explained at the press conference for her New York Film Festival opener 13th, was people “calling and wanting to give me money. Would you like some money? Would you like to make something? That was just a completely foreign thing to me.” The call that mattered came from Lisa Nishimura, in the documentary division at Netflix. She asked the Selma director to “think about what you’d like to do and say in the doc space, because she knew my first few films were docs. “To that question, she had “an immediate answer, that I wanted it to be something around prisons, because I feel like I grew up in an atmosphere where prison was always present, and talked about, like, y’know, ‘Where’s Derrick?’ ‘Oh, he’s locked up.’ ‘Where are you going?’ ‘Going to see my Theo.’ So it was just part of the fabric of growing up.”
But the film she came up with is much more than just a documentary “about prisons.” She took her title from the amendment of the Constitution that abolished slavery, with one key caveat: “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” And she begins her narrative that far back, in the days of Reconstruction, when an entire economy that was based on slave labor had to be preserved. And “punishment for crime” became a loophole that could do it.
You see, this is not just a story about the disproportionate number of black men in our prisons (or even of the disproportionate percentage of our population in general that’s imprisoned). It’s a story that – in a manner that recalls Eugene Jarecki’s similarly riveting The House I Live In – refocuses the entire American story through the prism of institutionalized white supremacy, tracing its reconfiguration and rebranding through the decades, from slavery to Jim Crow to “the war on drugs” to “tough on crime.”
This is, needless to say, a lot of ground to cover, and the scope of what DuVernay is doing requires her to move fast, slicing her way through history, orchestrating her archival footage, talking heads, and onscreen graphics like an energetic conductor. But she also knows how to control the tempo; every now and again she stops at a key moment (the 1988 “Willie Horton” ad, the murder of Trayvon Martin) and drills down on it, gathering together the threads and themes that she’s been carefully laying out.
So she accomplishes much: breaking down coded language, tallying the rising prison population decade by decade, deconstructing and demystifying the Reagan era, tracing the systemic erasure and elimination of black leaders and movements. She connects the dots and presents the kind of context that’s so often lacking in our understanding of these issues. Some of it is hard to hear, particularly in light of current political struggles; the juxtaposition of Donald Trump’s taunts towards protestors with vintage footage of civil rights activists being beaten is predictably upsetting, but the Clintons don’t come out of this thing smelling too good either.
Which is to say that 13th is fair – or, to be more precise, that no one gets away clean. It’s a necessary picture, but often a wildly infuriating and deeply upsetting one, nowhere more so than in the sequence where she presents, one right after another, our most recent and tragically iconic images of police murdering young black men. It’s the culmination of a thesis, so it’s not exploitative, but it is provocative; to see this barrage of images, on a huge screen, one right after another, is horrifying, and heartbreaking, and powerful.
There are minor flaws, here and there (the on-screen text and animation, for example, lean towards broad literalism, providing underlining to the history and testimony that’s not necessary), but the film’s only serious problem is that there’s just not enough of it. This viewer, for one, would love to have seen DuVernay tackle this topic with the expansive running time of something like O.J.: Made in America – to have the time to walk through this material, rather than jog. But that’s easy for me to say, as the one who merely watches it, rather than makes it. And she’s very clear about what she’s trying to accomplish.
“This is the primer, for folks that won’t read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, who won’t read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy,” she explained Friday. “And I also think there’s something to having it all strung together – that did something for me, to see it back-to-back, to see it lined up.”
She’s right – and what’s more, there’s something to having it all assembled in an easily digestible format, available to the widest possible audience. After its NYFF debut, 13th moves to Netflix (“Thanks Luke Cage, thanks Stranger Things,” DuVernay joked), where with the click of a mouse or the pressing of a remote, it can open far more eyes than any art house engagement. And that, DuVernay confessed, is her dream for the film.
“It sounds like a little bit Kumbaya or Pollyana, but I truly feel like this can change people’s ideas about what this all means,” she explained. “That you have some context for it that’s emotional, and we’re not all living in this fog of ignorance, which is what I think this country’s been dealing with in relation to these ideas for a long time.”
13th premiered last night at the New York Film Festival. It debuts on Netflix October 7th.