Saturday, October 01, 2016

“13th”– Movie Review



On the Opening Night of The 54th New York Film Festival, I attended the World Premiere of the new documentary “13th” by Ava Duvernay. 


Despite the fact that the United States abolished slavery long ago, is it using the prison system to wrongly enslave its African American citizens?


The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution ended slavery; it states as follows:  “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States”.  But just as it can be argued that the first two Amendments to the Constitution can be abused, so can the 13th, which was found to contain a major loophole.  With the clause pertaining to conviction of a crime, racists found a way to maintain the slavery of African Americans who were legal citizens of this country. 

After the end of The Civil War in The United States, an odd coincidence began to occur in the South:  a significant number of Black men were being convicted of crimes and sent to prison.  While doing their time, they were put to work at various tasks of manual labor.  Why did this happen?  Southerners feared that their economy would collapse without slaves tending their farms; in a clandestine move, their leaders decided that they could still legally continue slavery despite the 13th Amendment by imprisoning Blacks and forcing them to toil in their fields as part of their “punishment”. 

It didn’t end there; this revised form of slavery continued well into the 20th century, despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law by President Johnson.  Along the way, however, various other United States Presidents had a hand in perpetuating this new slavery:  Nixon’s War On Crime, Reagan’s Southern Strategy (as articulated by his political consultant Lee Atwater) and Bill Clinton’s 1994 Law Enforcement Act (including The First Lady’s assessment of the so-called “super predators” that some felt was a coded message for Black Americans).  Although The United States represents only 5% of the world’s population, it boasts 25% of the world’s prisoners.  With prison populations increasing exponentially (providing a high profit for corporations associated with serving these prisons), can this trend be turned around? 



When was the last time you saw Newt Gingrich and Angela Davis agree on something?  If your answer is never (which, by the way, is the only correct answer), then the documentary “13th” is a must-see for you.  Duvernay’s explosive film is illustrates a devotion to its subject matter by virtue of its extraordinarily detailed research.   Once the facts are presented one by one, there is no denying the evidence before you – especially with the recent spate of Black executions by police officers around the country.  The director does an outstanding job in laying out her case before the audience. 

Having seen “13th”, it is difficult not to feel shaken; it is, without a doubt, a disturbing view of our home and one that may have not been considered if you haven’t lived in this country as a Black American.  One can understand why other countries denounce the United States when criticized over issues concerning human rights.  In this regard, America seems hypocritical because it cannot first clean up its own house before criticizing the mess in other nations.  Deservedly, the U.S. shares both blame and shame when it comes to human rights violations. 

If there are any criticisms about “13th”, it would be the following.  First, it suffers from the bane of most documentaries, The Talking Heads; even though it’s slightly over an hour and a half, it can get a bit tiresome, despite the fact that the director uses some animation and graphics to break up the interviews.  Second, it was mentioned above the degree to which it contains detailed research; this works to both its advantage and disadvantage because the viewer feels so overwhelmed with facts, it’s ambitious to process everything in a single viewing.  Lastly, despite the fact that it calls out The Clintons for their role in contributing to this situation, it ultimately morphs into a commercial for Hillary Clinton – a clip is shown of the former president admitting his Crime Bill goofed, along with one of the Republican nominee being compared to those who would advance the cause for imprisoning Blacks.   

Sadly, this film may ultimately be preaching to the choir.  It remains to be seen if anyone whose beliefs would be challenged by this documentary would even view it, much less be changed after seeing the movie. 

The 13th (2016) on IMDb

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