13th (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

13th (2016)

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Ava DuVernay quietly directed 13th, a documentary about the systems of oppression that sprang up thanks to a loophole in the 13th Amendment, after her success with Selma.

Selma, with its intense focus on street tactics, behind-the-passion struggles, and clear view of the tragedies racists commit in the United States, was an angry and potent document of the Civil Rights struggle.  Director Ava DuVernay expands on the scope of Selma with 13th, a documentary about the loophole in the Amendment the United States tore itself apart over.  If you know nothing about the prison-industrial complex, conservative think-tanks passing laws to refresh the oppression of black American, the role entertainment played in shaping modern-day racism, and a whole host of other issues - you'll take in a lot of information.  How much of that information you'll actually retain is a whole other story, and one whose results are less positive.

13th's thesis, clearly established in the beginning, is that the 13th Amendment that granted slaves freedom built in a loophole that denied that freedom to criminals.  From there DuVernay jets through the decades since the 13th Amendment's passage.  We watch as various talking heads enter and exit the screen to guide us from the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era to recent protests against Bill Clinton for his work on passing the reprehensible 1994 criminal reform package.  That's a lot of ground to cover, and the clearly established thesis in the beginning is lost almost immediately to follow whatever thread DuVernay last covered.

Even with a lot of knowledge on the eras, particularly when it comes to the renamed peonage laws that allowed for re-enslavement of black Americans in a different way, I was completely lost at points.  The first fifteen minutes or so of 13th cover almost 140 years of American history.  Putting that into a comprehensible context is a difficult enough task for college courses on any one set of decades in that time.  With someone of DuVernay's passion, which is not lacking in the propulsive energy of 13th, the task becomes impossible.

The stock documentary tactic of putting text on the screen matching the words coming out of the talking heads is so rote I'm astonished DuVernay deploys it here.

The clear battle lines of Selma give way to a deluge of talking heads with their eyes directed at different points off-screen.  I don't think I've seen a single documentary which does this well, as the unspoken rhythm of the talking heads gets visually presented as a subject talking to a different audience.  It does work at one point when DuVernay draws on the clarity of conflict between activists and ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, whose work conservative politicians copy and paste to propose new laws.  The wormiest lookin' fella from ALEC sits on the right side of his screen looking to the left sheepishly dodging and reframing the unheard questions asked of him.  The activists on the left take up more space in the frame and make their points passionately to the right.  It's a blunt representation of the left versus right political debate but one that's effective because each side gets time to make their points before DuVernay cuts to related arguments.

Key phrase in that last sentence "each side," because 13th suffers from a severe case of "both sides"-ism.  If you haven't heard the term before, it's the operating theory that the extreme ends of any political conflict can incorrectly view the same event and that the truth is somewhere in the middle.  I call bullshit on that philosophy because the truth is the truth, however you perceive it speaks to your personal political compass, and not the facts at hand.  It's my dismissal of this philosophy that sent a klaxon alarm off in my mind when Newt Gingrich - noted conservative bastard who thought state orphanages were a good idea - appeared on the screen to talk about the systemic pressure of crime legislation against black Americans instead of white.

Look - if you can really get someone to "see the light" then by all means let them explain their case.  But this is the same Gingrich that refuted, "Black lives matter," by saying it's policies that have driven us all apart and that we're all Americans.  Poppycock.  Considering the legislation he's championed in the past, like his wish for state orphanages to return, is responsible for perpetuating racist systems it is incomprehensible to me that DuVernay interviews but doesn't challenge him.  The same goes for the distancing of systemic racism from the history of the Democratic Party.  When discussing the wave of Jim Crow oppression in the mid-'60s, they're referred to as former Democrats, and with the magnificent Angela Davis getting some time in 13th I wish she could have weighed in on her experience with Democrats in the '60s and '70s.

What the hell is Newt Gingrich doing in this movie?

Where is the responsibility?  There are some clues when DuVernay shifts her focus to the centrist realignment of the Democratic Party under former President Bill Clinton.  But even his tone-deaf racism from the '90s through the 2016 Presidential election, where Charles Pierce rightly asked, "When did Bill Clinton become such a fcking political maladroit?", ends up being centered more around Clinton than the overall shift of the Democratic Party.  The few hand-waves toward the changes Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and former President Barack Obama are given such short time in comparison.  Watching 13th gave me the sense that these things happened in a vacuum, that the oppressive legislation and cultural forces arrayed against black Americans sprang into existence, and the few nods to their causes have distressingly little foundation.

The frustrating thing about 13th is that none of this information is wrong.  The United States does have a history of cultural oppression dating beyond The Birth of a Nation, Jim Crow was slavery under another name, our economy is driven by prison labor, and so on.  But the series of talking heads hurtling through each decade left me without solid ground, none of which is helped by anachronistic editing like 13th's cut from the mid-'90s straight back to discussing how Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wasn't accepted as a saint by white America in his time.  Again, none of this is wrong, it's just so disjointed and bizarrely cut as to prevent a solid connection forming between the long-lost thesis of 13th's opening and the rest of the film.

13th still possesses a dense volume of information for those who can handle the myriad of time skips and sudden subject transitions.  DuVernay likewise never lets the audience off the hook by avoiding violence.  A heartbreaking montage toward the end, with footage of primarily white officers murdering black Americans, opens with a note from each family that the footage is reproduced with their consent.  The dozens of topics and tragedies at the center of 13th would make compelling documentaries all their own.  When they're thrown together with this much energy and little focus, it turns a series of important lessons into quick bites you'll be lucky to retain.

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13th (2016)

Directed by Ava DuVernay.

Posted by Andrew

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