Some people will try to claim otherwise, but the race for Best Documentary Feature is over. Done. This is the winner. The only discussion to be had is whether it will be the first documentary film to be nominated for Best Picture. Probably not... but it will be an ongoing discussion.
New York Film Festival Review: ‘13TH’
Chief Film Critic
SEPTEMBER 29, 2016 | 07:04PM PT
Ava DuVernay's documentary on the era of mass incarceration opens the New York Film Festival on a note of spectacular truth.
Ava DuVernay’s “13TH” is the first documentary ever to be selected as the opening-night film of The New York Film Festival. (It premieres at Lincoln Center on Sept. 30.) That lends a momentous aura to what is already, each year, a momentous event. In this case, the precedent feels spiritually right. Movies, as both a business and an entertainment form, are struggling to define themselves in the 21st century, but there’s no doubt that we’re in the high renaissance era of documentary. Each week, every day, in theaters and on VOD, on cable channels and networks and streaming services, you can see movies that dive into topical issues with the kind of investigative fervor we once expected from newspapers. You can see movies that conjure (as maybe only movies can) the ghosts and artifacts and living semiotics of history. And you can see movies that hold you in their grip with a force and excitement that match that of any dramatic feature. “13TH” is a movie that does all those things at once. More than just another documentary, it’s a crucial and stirring document — of racism and injustice, of politics and the big-picture design of America — that, I believe, will be watched and referenced for years to come.
DuVernay, the brilliant director of “Selma,” has made a movie that possesses a piercing relevance in the age of Black Lives Matter and the unspeakable horror and tragedy of escalated police shootings. “13TH” looks at the current American state of “mass incarceration,” a phrase that has quickly grown numbing with repetition; DuVernay puts the (disturbing) feeling back into it. She takes off from the era when — as President Obama observes in the film’s opening moments — our nation contains just 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners. DuVernay’s chronicle of this crisis is heartrending and enraging; if that’s all the movie did, it would be invaluable. Yet “13TH” also travels deep into history, connecting every link in the chain to reveal how we got here. The metaphor is intentional: DuVernay’s message is that the psychodynamics of slavery, and the economic logistics of it, have never gone away. Instead, they went underground, mutating into different forms (Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the “war on drugs”) as the decades rolled on.
That’s a bold thesis, one you might imagine will put certain audiences on the defensive. DuVernay, though, works with a slow, sure hand that never risks oversimplifying the past. On the contrary, she brings the psychological history of what has gone on in this country to life in a way that few mainstream investigations or (God help us) liberal message movies have done. When you watch “13TH,” you feel that you’re seeing an essential dimension of America with new vision. That’s what a cathartically clear-eyed work of documentary art can do.
DuVernay, of course, is far from the first social critic to observe that slavery, for all practical purposes, didn’t end in 1865. Yet she examines its legacy with freshly devastating insight. In recent years, “The Birth of a Nation,” the 1915 D.W. Griffith landmark that essentially invented feature filmmaking as we know it, has been treated as such a racist pariah of a movie that its very existence has, to a degree, been shunned. The film’s racism (more than racism; let’s call it what it was — an exhortation to terrorism and racist violence) is undeniable, a stain on our country and the DNA of its popular culture. Yet Griffith’s power as a filmmaker is relevant as well, and DuVernay explores the movie in all its contradictions. The African-American Studies professor Jelani Cobb unpacks “The Birth of a Nation” with blistering eloquence, describing how Griffith, in his portrayal of the second coming of the Ku Klux Klan, invented the image of the burning cross, and how the film offered “a tremendously accurate prediction of how race would operate in the United States.” Yet where does the escalation of that oppression turn into the rise of prison culture?
“13TH” traces the connection back to the end of the Civil War, and — in a grand horrific irony — to the passage of the 13th Amendment itself, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” This meant that once the war was over, former slaves could be arrested on trivial charges like vagrancy and loitering and turned into prisoners, and just like that…they were slaves again. Hence the image of men singing spirituals on the chain gang: a kind of legalized slavery. The link to “The Birth of a Nation” is that Griffith, working with actors in blackface, took the image of the “black criminal” and turned it into a demonic mythology that undergirded the 20th century. The “black criminal” became a monster to be feared and repressed, resulting in a vicious cycle that continues to this day: the presumption of black guilt in crime, leading to conviction, leading to incarceration, leading to a de facto systemization of imprisonment that is really the ethos of slavery in disguise.
In “13TH,” this narrative of racial tyranny is told with a nimble cinematic power that awakens your senses even as it sickens your moral center. Yet the film doesn’t become revelatory until it reaches the Civil Rights era, a moment when a lot of people (i.e., white liberals) began to congratulate themselves for having finally confronted the great American race problem and taken the big steps to “solve” it. Even if you acknowledged that we still had miles to go, no one denied that the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — and the slow prying apart of cultural barriers that had begun to take place in the ’60s — amounted to the stirrings of a revolution. What DuVernay homes in on is the calculated counterattack waged by the establishment.
We all know about the rise, within the Republican Party, of the Southern strategy, though DuVernay features an extraordinary audio recording of Lee Atwater articulating it that puts a chill in your bones. And we know about the cataclysm of the assassinations, from Malcolm to Martin to Fred Hampton — though Van Jones testifies, with furious insight, about how terrifyingly it damaged the black community to have an entire generation of leaders stripped away. But the leap of perception made by “13TH” is to demonstrate how the Civil Rights movement, in spelling the end of the Jim Crow era, caused the white power structure to ask: What can we put in its place? How can we continue to segregate? The answer was the “war on crime” and the “war on drugs.” They were born together in the Nixon era, and they were always code for “Let’s put them behind bars.” DuVernay plays astonishing recorded testimony from John Ehrlichman, the Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs, in which he admits that the government created a crackdown that targeted left-wing dissidents…and black people. But always with the excuse of fighting the drug scourge. “Did we know we were lying about the drugs?” asks Ehrlichman. “Of course we did.”
The “war on drugs” is, of course, far more associated with President Reagan, who launched his version in 1982 (with Nancy shouting “Just say no!” like a cheerleader on the sidelines). Many people reflexively went along with it, precisely because defending serious drug use never seemed like a viable alternative position. What happened, though, was that a health issue got turned into a crime issue. And selectively, hypocritically so. Think about it: If you learned today that a family member, or friend, or work colleague was a heroin addict, would you react by calling the police and having that person arrested? That would seem insane — but that’s what we did as a culture to thousands of inner-city drug abusers. In recent years, there has been much liberal criticism of the war on drugs as an epic waste of money and resources, but “13TH” — rightly — recontextualizes the war on drugs as a race war.
DuVernay keeps flashing a time-clock of the rising prison population. In 1970, it was 357,292, and by 1980 it had risen it 513,900. In 1990, it was 1,179,200, and it is currently 2.3 million. (Forty percent of those prisoners are African-American.) It’s the biggest U.S. growth industry! The terrible thing is, I’m not joking. DuVernay anatomizes the racist and capitalist underpinnings of the era of mass incarceration in a way that makes “13TH” an indelible act of social-political inquiry. The movie fills in each level of how it works, starting with the rise of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the lobbying club on steroids that unites corporate leaders and politicians, so that the corporate leaders can write big checks and craft the legislation that is then “recommended” to Congress. As the film reveals, it was ALEC that came up with the cornerstones of President Clinton’s 1994 crime bill: the mandatory sentencing, the “three strikes” clause, and so on.
The conflict of interest is stunning. For a long time, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest private prison company, was a member of ALEC, and so was Wal-Mart, which had a vested interested in playing up “stand your ground” laws because the result of those laws is that gun sales shot up (and Wal-Mart is a major merchandiser of firearms). The very notion that the American prison system is now being run by private corporations, with a profiteering interest in maintaining a large prison population, represents a fundamental — and indefensible — transfer of power in our society. The entire prison system has become a racket. The word for that situation is…well, I’m a film critic, not an editorial writer, so I won’t say the word. What I will say is: Watch “13TH” and draw your own conclusion.
There are some who may carp at the powerful case Ava DuVernay makes in “13TH.” Because her take on these issues is complex, she can’t point every time to a smoking gun (though her film has several holsters’ worth of them). Yet one of the staggering things this movie captures is how racism could be the driving force behind something as seismic as the rise of mass incarceration in America, yet that racism could remain in many ways “invisible.” So some people will be driven to say the racism isn’t there. But what they’re really saying is: It’s not a white people problem. A film as starkly humane as “13TH” makes you realize that it’s everyone’s problem.
Review: ‘13TH,’ the Journey From Shackles to Prison Bars
13TH NYT Critics’ Pick
By MANOHLA DARGISSEPT. 29, 2016
Powerful, infuriating and at times overwhelming, Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13TH” will get your blood boiling and tear ducts leaking. It shakes you up, but it also challenges your ideas about the intersection of race, justice and mass incarceration in the United States, subject matter that could not sound less cinematic. Yet Ms. DuVernay — best known for “Selma,” and a filmmaker whose art has become increasingly inseparable from her activism — has made a movie that’s as timely as the latest Black Lives Matter protest and the approaching presidential election.
The movie hinges on the 13th Amendment, as the title indicates, in ways that may be surprising, though less so for those familiar with Michelle Alexander’s 2010 best seller, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Ratified in 1865, the amendment states in full: “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.” As Ms. Alexander underscores, slavery was abolished for everyone except criminals. (“13TH” opens the New York Film Festival on Friday; it will be in theaters and on Netflix beginning on Oct. 7.)
In her book, Ms. Alexander (the most charismatic of the movie’s interviewees) argues that mass incarceration exists on a continuum with slavery and Jim Crow. As one of “the three major racialized systems of control adopted in the United States to date,” it ensures “the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.” Under the old Jim Crow, state laws instituted different rules for blacks and whites, segregating them under the doctrine of separate but equal. Now, with the United States having 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, a disproportionate number of whom are black, mass incarceration has become “metaphorically, the new Jim Crow.”
Written by Ms. DuVernay and Spencer Averick, “13TH” picks up Ms. Alexander’s baton and sprints through the history of American race and incarceration with seamless economy. (Mr. Averick also edited the movie.) In its first 30 minutes, the documentary touches on chattel slavery; D. W. Griffith’s film “The Birth of a Nation”; Emmett Till; the civil rights movement; the Civil Rights Act of 1964; Richard M. Nixon; and Ronald Reagan’s declaration of the war on drugs. By the time her movie ends, Ms. DuVernay has delivered a stirring treatise on the prison industrial complex through a nexus of racism, capitalism, policies and politics. It sounds exhausting, but it’s electrifying.
Speed is one reason — you’re racing through history witness by witness, ghastly statistic by statistic — but you’re also charged up by how the movie’s voices rise and converge. It’s like being in a room with the smartest people around, all intent on rocking your world. Ms. DuVernay is working within a familiar documentary idiom that weaves original, handsomely shot talking-head interviews with well-researched, occasionally surprising and gravely disturbing archival material. All these sources, in turn, have been shaped into discrete sections that are introduced with music and animation. Every so often, the animation underscores an interviewee’s point, as in one sequence in which the word “freedom” morphs into flying birds and then the Stars and Stripes and then a slave ship.
With few exceptions, the movie’s voices — including most of its several dozen interviewees — speak in concert. Some (like a galvanizing Angela Davis) are more effective and persuasive than others; at least one — Newt Gingrich, speaking startling truth to power — is a jaw-dropper. Even with its surprise guests, the movie isn’t especially dialectical; it also isn’t mainstream journalism. Ms. DuVernay presents both sides of the story, as it were (racism versus civil rights). Yet she doesn’t call on, say, politicians who have voted against civil rights measures for their thoughts on the history of race in the United States. She begins from the premise that white supremacy has already had its say for centuries.
Ms. Alexander has been criticized for oversimplifying the origins of mass incarceration in “The New Jim Crow.” This may account for why Ms. DuVernay, in perhaps a bid to pre-empt similar criticism, does include a few divergent voices, including the conservative lobbyist Grover Norquist, who frankly comes off as an exemplar of blinkered power and racial myopia. He pops up in a section on the rise off mass incarceration during the 1980s that’s tied to crack cocaine and the racial gap in arrests and sentencing. Mr. Norquist puts the onus for this disparity on politicians (calling out United States Representative Charles B. Rangel, another interviewee), stating that it had nothing to do with — as he puts it — “mean white people.”
The documentary might have benefited from more articulate jaggedly discordant voices than Mr. Norquist’s to enrich the dialogue and as a reminder of the other views on race, history and the criminal justice system, including those in the mainstream. One popular textbook, “The American System of Criminal Justice,” states that the 13th Amendment “had little impact on criminal justice.” And a booklet on the Constitution, “Know Your Rights,” available through the Justice Department, reads: “The 13th Amendment protects every person in America — all races and creeds, citizens and noncitizens, children and adults — from the bondage of slavery. It is unconstitutional for slavery to exist in any form or by any name.”
Ms. DuVernay forcefully and sorrowfully challenges that confident assertion, tracing the history of systems of racial control from the years after the abolition of slavery all the way to George Zimmerman’s speaking to a police dispatcher about the 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. “He’s got his hand in his waistband,” we hear Mr. Zimmerman say shortly before fatally shooting Mr. Martin. “And he’s a black male.” When this documentary reaches its culmination, which features graphic videos of one after another black man being shot by police, Ms. DuVernay’s rigorously controlled deconstruction of crime, punishment and race in the United States has become a piercing, keening cry.
Ms. DuVernay isn’t the only American director to take on race and the prison industrial complex (Eugene Jarecki’s “The House I Live In” charts adjacent terrain), but hers is a powerful cinematic call to conscience, partly because of how she lays bare the soul of our country. Because, as she sifts through American history, you grasp the larger implications of her argument: The United States did not just criminalize a select group of black people. It criminalized black people as a whole, a process that, in addition to destroying untold lives, effectively transferred the guilt for slavery from the people who perpetuated it to the very people who suffered through it.
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