Of all the documentaries that are currently available for streaming on Netflix, none are quite as important, quite as shocking or quite as powerful than Ava DuVernay’s 13th. An enthralling companion piece to her Oscar-nominated Selma, a film that recounted Martin Luther King’s continuing campaign for equal voting rights for black people, her latest acts as an oral history of racial inequality and injustice that is, ashamedly and embarrassingly so, still ongoing.
Taking its title from one of the most important documents in American history, the 13th amendment, the film’s core goal is to explain how, through a loophole in the constitution (a loophole that reads “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, or any place subject to their jurisdiction”) slavery in the US has never disappeared, but has instead evolved into a flawed and corrupt criminal justice system in which, statistically, one in every three black men will end up incarcerated at some point in their lives.
It’s a bold statement to make, but one which is backed up with frightening ease by DuVernay and her subjects. Whether it’s through the intelligent and impassioned talking heads from historians, politicians and activists; the self-confessed mistakes that are admitted by former Presidents; the brutal footage depicting police violence against unarmed people of colour; or, the ever-increasing figures concerning black people in prison; it is frankly impossible to argue with the cold, hard facts that take centre stage in the film – especially when it comes from the very mouths that would debut any wrong-doings.
A harrowing journey through the last sixty-decades of lynching, beatings and media campaigns that exist only to create and perpetuate a fear of ethnic communities – D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation features as one of the earliest examples of this – is made all the more disturbing due to the fact that nothing has really changed. In what’s one of the film’s most heartbreaking moments, DuVernay cleverly splices footage of the modern day Trump rallies with old black and white footage from protests in the 1960’s, both of which focus violence that bare striking resemblances to each other.
This is just one example of the director’s creativity in telling the story, with rap music playing an important part in the narrative – lyrics that relate to the circumstances in the film make you realise just how poetic the music actually is – and a recurring visual prompt every time the world criminal is mentioned, to fully hammer home the message.
However, perhaps the biggest endorsement I can make for 13th is the fact that, once it finished, my fiancée turned to me and sincerely asked in a voice of desperation “what can we do to help?”. The fact that the documentary can have such an affect on a person, to the point where they want to help change the way the world works, is the highest praise I could ever possibly give it. And if it has the same affect on everybody else who watches it, maybe there is some hope left in what is a desperate situation.
Image credit to http://www.impawards.com