Ava DuVernay (director of ‘Selma’) begins ‘13th,’ her documentary on the 13th Amendment and the U.S. prison system, with a quote from President Barack Obama. In it, he offers a startling statistic: the U.S. is home to 5% of the world’s population, and 25% of the world’s prisoners.
This statistic lays the groundwork for a shocking exploration of how a number of influences – propaganda, lobbyists, politicians, corporations, slogans, and interest groups – led to today’s ugly system of mass incarceration and brutality on the part of some police officers.
The propaganda is ancestored by D.W. Griffith’s silent film ‘The Birth of a Nation’ (1915). Depicting all African-Americans as criminals and exalting the Ku Klux Klan, the film led to the rebirth of the KKK and opened the floodgates for unspeakable violence.
DuVernay’s narrative moves expediently from this period in history to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. It then morphs into an investigation of the beginnings of the “War on Drugs.”
Richard Nixon’s use of the phrase “Law and Order” appears incredibly relevant at a time when Donald Trump claims to be the “Law and Order” candidate. Possibly the most revealing quote used in the film comes from Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman, who said, “The Nixon Campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. […] We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities…”
From here, ‘13th’ passionately depicts how, from the Nixon years on, the “War on Drugs” shifted into a slick, racially-motivated heist, taking millions of people from their families for minor drug infractions and leaving many communities in ruins.
What’s most admirable about ‘13th,’ other than DuVernay’s clear talent for storytelling, is that she’s interviewed smart people on all sides of the issue. This includes some who supported the “War on Drugs,” including Congressman Charles Rangel (D), former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R), and longtime Republican political advocate Grover Norquist.
This holistic approach makes the film less sensational and more of a document. It allows a space to develop where DuVernay’s talking heads can discuss the subtle ways in which words and images have hijacked the conversations we should be having about race in this country. And as this relates to Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation,’ we learn from ‘13th’ just how far we haven’t come since 1915.
‘13th’ is an educational and incredibly powerful documentary which uses empirical data – things people said and did – to prove its perspective on America’s prison system and how we got to where we are in 2016. Ava DuVernay may not have received the Oscar nomination she deserved for ‘Selma,’ but she could very well be walking away with a golden statue for Best Documentary come next February.
‘13th’ = A+
‘13th’ is unrated, contains extremely mature thematic elements and violent images.