It is Barack Obama that we first hear in Selma director Ava DuVernay’s staggering, scorching Roman candle of a documentary about endemic racism and the prison system. “The United States is home to five percent of the world’s population,” he says, “but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.” Having the nation’s only black president convey this well-known statistic is key to DuVernay’s lucid, cleanly-argued thesis, which comes down to this: That Americans can claim advances in race relations, while still needing to face the grotesque, 150-year-long slime trail of mass incarceration.
In 1865, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery but included a loophole — “except as a punishment for crime” — that was exploited in the South, where blacks were rapidly imprisoned for minor offenses. The involuntary servitude continuum was unbroken. DuVernay weaves in clips of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), with its portrayal of blacks as rapists and criminals, and then segues into chronicling decades of segregation and white terrorism, eventually leading to the War on Drugs and biased federal crime bills that engorged the prison population by millions—while also creating an industry so monstrous that it’s practically impossible to reform. The right-wing nonprofit ALEC, long a pusher for privatizing prisons, comes under the closest scrutiny. But DuVernay isn’t making a bombshell expose of one lobby group. She’s fascinated by the musicality of language and the verbiage people use. In a neat stylistic trick, whenever someone utters “criminal” in regard to an African-American, she cuts to large block letters of the word. It happens dozens of times.
Talking heads as varied as Angela Davis and Newt Gingrich (and old audio of racist ghouls like J. Edgar Hoover and Lee Atwater) help pull the hundreds of threads around the issue together. And though DuVernay’s approach is crisp (many of its points will be familiar to anyone who’s studied the subject), 13th never goes soft. In a brutal, bravura sequence later in the film, she crosscuts footage from a Trump rally with archival clips of blacks being punched and fire-hosed, all while the candidate bellows about “the good old days.” 13th is a titanic statement by a major American voice. Viewing — right now — should be mandatory. A
13th is the Opening Night selection of the New York Film Festival on Friday, Sept. 30, before opening in limited release and launching on Netflix on Oct. 7.