“Writing history with lightning” was how President Woodrow Wilson praised D.W. Griffth’s groundbreaking but unreservedly racist The Birth of a Nation, which portrayed black men as animalistic rapists and the Ku Klux Klan as noble white knights. Met with a “rapturous response” upon its 1915 debut, “the first major blockbuster” has cast a long shadow over American culture. And black American filmmaker Ava DuVernay aims to beat back these hateful shadows by writing history in lightning of her own with The 13th.
As theatrical follow-up to her heralded Selma, the advocate/auteur has gathered historians, politicians, authors, and advocates to trace our current epidemic of mass incarceration and institutional prejudice with the judicial system back to the days following the Civil War. The constitutional Amendment for which the doc is named declares that in America, no one shall be subjected to slave labor. But there’s a big loophole that leaves convicted criminals out of that promise. The 13th proposes mass incarceration is a sly form of modern enslavement.
Fearlessly, DuVernay digs back into a history written in blood and teargas, reaching into corners of the American experience that white America has the luxury to avert our tender eyes from. Iconic political activist Angela Davis, New Jersey senator Cory Booker, congressman Charles Rangel, political consultant Newt Gingrich, and more line up to tell the tale of black Americans from the not-so-distant days of slavery (remember there are those still living whose parents were slaves), to the heyday of Birth of a Nation, through the Civil Rights movement, The Black Panthers rise and fall (though she glosses over their more problematic exploits), through the “Southern Strategy,” Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan’s politically minded War on Drugs, and Bill Clinton’s disastrous Federal Crime Bill, to today and Black Lives Matter. Through talking heads and haunting imagery of lynched men, murdered children, and archival footage of white-on-black violence, DuVernay spells out how our current issues of mass incarceration and police brutality have been a long-time in the making.
Maybe you’re thinking you can’t handle watching this movie. Not right now. Not when this election has our nerves worn raw.
But we—and I venture to say especially those of us who are white and like to think ourselves allies in Black Lives Matter—owe our fellow countrymen/countrywomen the hearing of their story. It is our story too. And while we (rightly) praise movies like 12 Years a Slave, it’s crucial to expose ourselves to how these stories are not in some safely distant past, but have paved the way to our contemporary racial strife.
The 13th is painfully relevant today. The statistics here will rip the breath from your lungs. The footage of violence enacted on black bodies then and now (with permission of the victim’s surviving families) will wrench tears from your eyes. Your blood will boil. Your heart will burn. And it must. Because TK is right. This is a war. And to demurely ignore the brutal reality that black Americans live with today, is to take a side, condoning this injustice.
For all her fervor and insight, DuVernay doesn’t give an easy answer. Because there is none.
When discussing the 1994 crime bill, she cuts to Democratic nominee Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton saying “super predator” in reference to black youths. She shows Republican nominee Donald Trump raging against the (now exonerated) Central Park Five, and reminds us the wrathful businessman paid for a full page ad in the New York Daily News calling for them to be put to death.
DuVernay then cuts to footage from this election: Both Clintons admitting remorse over the crime bill, admitting it “made the problem worse.” The documentarian shows how Hillary has grown to recognize some of the problems facing black Americans, aligning herself to Black Lives Matter, and making the promise to end mass incarceration part of her campaign pledges. Yet DuVernay’s talking heads sternly remind us politicians move with the mood of the American public. And so we need to stay vigilant, active and advocating.
Then comes more Trump footage. This time, he’s bellowing to hordes of white people wearing “Make American Great Again” ball caps as they viciously shove stoic black people out of his rallies. Sometimes the Trump stumpers throw punches to punctuate their ire. Trump urges “get them out of here,” and laughs that in “the good ol’ days” people knew how to handle their kind. DuVernay pulls no punches cutting back to footage from the Civil Rights movement: a calm black man being assaulted by a pack of seething white men. In both, white people lunge, bellowing like demons as black folk calmly try to just live their fucking lives. It’s only the black-and-white versus the full-color footage that sets their scenes apart, showing how far we still have to go. And we need to go there together.
“We are products of the history our ancestors chose, if we are white,” one interviewee explains at the doc’s start. “If we are black, we are products of the history our ancestors most likely did not chose. Yet here we are, all together. We have to understand that in order to escape from it.”
I consider myself an ally. I advocate. I try to be informed. I try to listen. I’m still learning. And still, The 13th taught me a lot. And it urged me to search for more to fill the gaps the doc’s short runtime demands.
In short, it’s a must-see for anyone disturbed by the violence shooting across our nation.
The 13th premieres tomorrow at the New York Film Festival. It hits Netflix on October 7th.
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