The documentary 13th, examining the 13th Amendment that was released on Netflix on Oct. 7, is not an enjoyable film to watch. It does not seek to be. Mostly focusing on the prison-industrial complex, 13th, directed by Ava DuVernay, takes the viewer from the abolition of slavery up until the present day.
As the film depicts, the theme throughout this span of over a century is the same. Despite slavery’s abolishment in 1865, white politicians have been loath to give up the power gained from the dehumanization of blacks. The exact form of subordinating blacks has differed but, when one method is abolished, another is established. DuVernay details the most common form of the last several decades: mass incarceration.
DuVernay does not want to simply provide information; she seeks to jar and shock viewers into action. It is difficult to imagine one watching 13th without feeling deeply disturbed. The emergence of a medium like Netflix allows 13th to be watched in a different way than one might be able to at a movie theater. Perhaps a dozen times, I found myself pausing the film, either to remark to the person next to me about the absurdity of some truth just revealed on screen, or to give myself a moment before continuing through the difficult imagery. Film is often associated with entertainment and escapism, yet 13th uses the conventions of cinema as a medium to deliver a gravely serious message and, in doing so, creates a more valuable piece of cinema than perhaps anything else released in 2016.
The documentary seeks to disturb its viewer, but it is able to do so effectively because it is shot and edited in such a cinematic fashion. The backdrop for every interview is carefully chosen — often the setting in which a person is being interviewed looks, in some way, like a prison cell. Yet, despite the subtle symbolism employed in the film, it is not meant to manipulate the viewer in any way. DuVernay is only trying to package the film’s dark message in a cinematic way so that the viewer will be drawn in. When 13th hits the viewer, it hits hard. To do this, it needs nothing more than to simply deliver the truth through the medium of cinema. In its most powerful moments, all 13th is doing is compiling audio and images from historical and, more disturbingly, current events.
The movie is filled with disturbing and powerful statistics. America constitutes less than five percent of the world population, but more than 20 percent of all incarcerated people. The film states one in three young black men will be incarcerated, compared with one in 17 white men. In Alabama, 30 percent of black men over the age of 18 have lost their right to vote because of their criminal histories. But DuVernay does not think these statistics are enough to push people to action. The film does not want to tell us anything. It simply wants to show us.
One of the most powerful sequences in 13th begins with Donald Trump at a rally. The movie does not mention him by name, or explicitly offer any opinion of him. For two minutes, it simply lets audio from his rally play, as video from fights at his rallies are played alongside footage of blacks being beaten in the 60s. The movie says nothing else; it asks you to make no specific connection. But you can see it. And it is terrifying.
DuVernay has created a film that should be mandatory viewing for every American citizen. Near its conclusion, 13th states that people need to be shocked into action. And then it goes on, through very intense footage, to do just that. Of course, this recommendation of mandatory viewing comes with a caveat; for those who have lived the black experience, this “shock” and the pain it brings may not be necessary. I cannot speak to that. But for the rest of us, refusing to engage with the material presented in 13th, either because we do not wish to shatter our personal realities in favor of truth, or because we have a predetermined belief about politics and race in America, would be a choice to remain ignorant, and an irresponsible disservice to the human beings around us who have been so wrongly dehumanized.
Often, people look back on history and swear they would have done different. But sometimes it’s hard to recognize what exactly an injustice in its time and place is. DuVernay reminds us of one today in 13th.