Why is Ava DuVernay's '13th' such an important historical document?

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Ava DuVernay's "13th" opened the New York Film Festival last week, the first ever documentary to do so in the festival's 52 year history. It has also been made available to stream on Netflix since Friday. This is a film that shouldn't be skipped. You have no excuse to skip it. That is if you are one of Netflix's 33+ Million subscribers or live in New York and L.A.

The NYFF spot is lot of prestige for a documentary to take in, but once you take a look at DuVernay's film you get to see the bigger picture and understand why it is such an important document. The film is a comprehensive look at how the African-American population has been pummeled, quite literally, for the better part of 150 years or - more precisely after the signing of the 13th amendment to abolish slavery.

DuVernay's subtle eloquence as a filmmaker is the perfect match for a film which is sadly a very resonant record of our times. It is one of the most important movies to have come out in a long time- an indictment of a failed and corrupt system that continues to try and control its black population.


A few fascinating things we learn:

(1) The 13th amendment was passed on Jan. 31, 1865 and, yet, even though it marked an important step forward for democracy in the United States, it had a major flaw. Addressing the United States' “original sin” by banning slavery, the amendment came with one exception: if you committed a crime and were a former slave, the 13th wasn't going to count for you. The South, still reeling from losing the civil war and the slave trade, had their economy greatly affected with tens of thousands of unpaid workers now freed from their purgatory. That didn't stop the Southern elite from finding ways to lock up African-Americans with the smallest offenses.

(2) DuVernay lays the blame on many institutions, including cinema itself. She makes the case that D.W. Griffith's 1915 classic "The Birth of a Nation" heralded the Ku Klux Klan into the forefront of American culture and that their infamous burning of the crosses ritual was popularized through Griffith's film.

Scholars, historians, activists and many more contribute their thoughts to DuVernay's  documentary, which feels way too short for the vastness and substantial depth of the subject matter. A 7 or 8 part mini-series would have been more satisfying than the 100 minute running time we get instead. This topic will eventually need the "Ken Burns treatment."

(3) '13th' tries to debunk the myth of black criminality by going after governmental policies that have spearheaded the racial injustice that is finally coming at the forefront these days with the the "Black Lives Matter" movement and cell-phone camera footage of Police brutality. At one point in the film we are stunned to learn that 1 out of every 3 black men in America can "expect" to be imprisoned at some point in their lives, compare that to 1 out of every 17 for the white male. Another shocking stat: 97 percent of all inmates are imprisoned without ever going to trial, due to plea bargains, even if they were innocent of the crime they were accused of. "If you are white and rich enough to get a lawyer, you'll be fine, If you're a minority with no money, then you're fucked"


(4) President Obama himself is heard saying that the U.S. has just "5% of the world's population and 25% of its prisoners." A staggering stat that kicks off the film. 
(4) Past Presidents are not positively depicted in the film. Nixon is shown as the paranoid man that he was known to be, but more precisely, we get to see his attempts at demolishing the Black Panther movement (more than half the members of some chapters were infiltrated with government spies) and his starting the infamous "War on Drugs," which would be the key stroke in locking up millions of African Americans and corporatizating the pentitentiary system into large-scale business. 


American governments were wondering how they could continue to segregate in the 70s and 80s without breaking the law? The War on Drugs of course. A health issue turned into a criminal issue and Reagan took advantage of it every step of the way. Reagan is shown as continuing Nixon's persecution with his own set of tough regulations. Crack cocaine prison sentences were more severe than Cocaine possession in the Reagan 80s. Why? Crack Cocaine was a cheap drug that was heavily used by black people, whereas powdered Cocaine, almost just as dangerous a substance,  was a rich, white man's drug.

(5) Most maddening of all is Bill Clinton's infamous "crime bill" of 1994 which brought on the three-strike rule and the attempt to bypass parole hearings, which all coincided with the federal prison population skyrocketing under his command. Clinton is seen in present day, campaigning for his wife's presidency, apologizing for the bill and admitting it was a "Mistake." However, that "mistake" helped him get elected and his position that he just went along with the zeitgeist at the time not convincing enough. A tougher stance on crime is what got the Democrats back to White House, but it also ended up demolishing black communities throughout the country.


6) The prison population in 1970 was 357,292 people. It currently stands at 2.3 million. All of it ran by private corporations and investors. That business baby. There is so much to take in with "13th" that a larger scale project might have benefited the subject matter a little bit more, but still, what we have here is a powerful and thought-provoking account of racial inequality in a country that seems to pride itself in its freedom of speech and democratic law. After her landmark 2014 film "Selma," DuVernay continues to show her talents as a reputable and important filmmaker for our social and political times. She knows that for things to change a lot of work will have to be done. Her film deserves to be screened in schools nationwide and could be the catalyst for an even bigger revolution to come, that is if enough people see the film.
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