Dir: Ava DuVernay
This documentary follows on nicely from the director’s feature last year ‘Selma’, examining a matter of contention that the lesser known wording of the 13th amendment means that slavery was never really abolished in the USA.
DuVernay and her contributors are clear on their views, all in agreement, that the wording of the 13th amendment that slavery is abolished except as punishment for a crime, has led to blacks being criminalised ever since. It’s a tough point to make and one that may seem like a stretch at first glance, yet this film unceasingly packs issue on top of issue as evidence in support of the argument in such a way that it would be hard to contend.
Opening the film with some shocking statistics that immediately make a strong impression, that 1 in 4 people on Earth in prison are in the U.S. it sets the mood straight away that it won’t go easy on the topic, this is shown to be an issue that needs highlighting and condemning. The film then takes us back through a lot of history, mainly from the abolition of slavery and the lesser-known wording of the 13th amendment, through segregation, coming right up to last year’s presidential election and recent protests and most especially the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement.
Most of the film is comprised of ‘talking heads’ shots, though these are very kinetic and not just shot statically from a single angle. It takes a while before these experts giving eloquent pieces to camera are identified, most are activists or professors, also most are African-Americans. Even when they’re not on screen the audio of their interviews is heard as narration and explanation over the clips or photographs being shown. There’s constant talking, whether it be these contributors being interviewed, from archive footage and clips, or an occasional narration to explain something that didn’t otherwise have someone speaking about it. It’s incessant, which keeps the documentary moving at a pace that’s unrelenting and hits hard.
Visually this stands out as incredibly engaging and creative, definitely the most stylistically innovative documentary nominated this year. Key words are put on-screen to highlight them, including the lyrics to hip-hop songs that touch on the subject at hand that play to signal a change of section in the film, and the word ‘criminal’ is put up in a large font every time it is said. There’s also great use of graphics, some statistics are given with excellent visuals, at times as simple as a the line of a graph going up, others are more artistic but all are appropriate for the material and reinforce the surprising facts and figures.
Occasionally the film also makes clever use of extracts from other films. It links D.W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of A Nation’ to the rebirth of the KKK, with some clips from it shown again when stereotypes perpetuated by the film have recurred throughout the decades since. There’s also a brief clip from ‘12 Years A Slave‘ that depicts something quite horrific but in a way that a film clip could but real footage wouldn’t be able to. When the film uses amateur and archive footage it’s very powerful, especially the most recent instances of shootings and suchlike, clips we may have seen in the news over the past few years but made all the more powerful when shown in quick succession together. Also at one point there are clips from (when it was produced presidential candidate) Donald Trump, pointedly intercut with historical and newer archive footage of acts of violence in a way that is effective and shocking.
My only criticism is that there’s next to nothing in the way of contradiction offered. I counted just one sole dissenting voice who is simultaneously discredited by everyone else featured, then is shown to be backtracking on some of the things that their organisation is being lambasted for. The only others are politicians who have changed their minds on matters, first shown to be the problem, then at least partly admitting their earlier views were wrong. So in which case they are no longer dissenting voices. Everything said and shown backs up the film’s hypothesis in such a way as to present it as indisputable.
DuVernay has made a unapologetically polemical documentary that doesn’t hold back in its pace or argument, visually grabbing attention just as much as the controversy under discussion does. It works so hard to drive the point home that I think it runs the risk of making the audience reel back a little, especially as it doesn’t take a breath to let a dissenting voice get a word in edgeways. It’s still a fascinating film and no doubt makes many valid points that could be unpacked and examined at length, here though DuVernay recaps essentially the complete history of African Americans in 100 minutes with a clear and strong thread that I found interesting to follow.
’13th’ is available to watch on Netflix and is in the running for the ‘Best Documentary Feature’ Oscar this weekend. I think it’s one of the frontrunners though the strongest competition is from another documentary that covers civil rights history in far more extensive length ‘O.J.: Made in America‘ which I would pick as the winner, despite this being far more concise and visually creative.