Review

Ava DuVernay's documentary '13th' simmers with anger and burns with eloquence

It’s President Obama's voice we hear first. “So let’s look at the statistics,” he says. “The United States is home to 5% of the world's population but 25% of the world’s prisoners. Think about that.”

Which is what “13th,” Ava DuVernay’s smart, powerful and disturbing documentary, proceeds to make us do.

As persuasively argued as it is angry, and it is very angry, “13th” follows that statistic with another, equally unsettling one. African Americans make up 6.5% of the American population but 40.2% of the prison populace. While a white male has a 1 in 17 chance of ending up behind bars, for black males it is 1 in 3.

How did this situation happen, where did it come from? How did America end up with the highest rate of incarceration in the world? How did our prison population go from 196,441 in 1970 to nearly 2.3 million today? 

Named after the constitutional amendment that ended slavery, DuVernay’s follow up to best picture Oscar nominee “Selma” reminds us that this state of affairs did not take place overnight.

Offering a brisk, cogently argued alternative to the conventionally taught American story, allied in that sense to Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” DuVernay gives us a documentary that systematically covers a lot of territory, a century and a half of race relations in this country in fact.

If it is packed with facts, statistics and on-camera thoughts — from top-drawer academics like Henry Louis Gates, Michelle Alexander (author of the groundbreaking “The New Jim Crow”) and Angela Davis as well as assorted notables including Sen. Cory Booker, Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist — it is because there is so much to deal with.

In addition to these incisive talking heads, “13th” provides a great deal of newsreel and documentary material (footage of a white Little Rock mob beating up black journalist L. Alex Wilson, later the editor of the Chicago Defender, is especially chilling).     

And music plays a key role as well, not only with songs like Nina Simone’s version of “Work Song” heard on the sound track, but with key words from rap lyrics like Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype” appearing as arresting large type on the screen.

As put together by DuVernay’s longtime editor, Spencer Averick (who also shares co-writing credit with the director), everything in “13th” illuminates what is convincingly presented as a sad and tragic story that we are still living today.

The film’s premise is that while the 13th Amendment to the Constitution eliminated slavery and involuntary servitude, it in effect had an unintentional loophole that asserted “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

For the South after the end of the Civil War, says University of Connecticut professor Jelani Cobb, the question became how to replace the 4 million slaves who were the critical component of the region’s economic system.

The answer turned out to be mass arrests for minor crimes such as loitering and vagrancy and the creation of a system of convict leasing that allowed prisoners to work for private parties.

At the same time, what one academic calls “the mythology of black criminality” was created, with D.W. Griffith’s 1915 “The Birth of a Nation,” with its racist images of rapacious, animalistic behavior, being a key element, leading to a major revival of the Ku Klux Klan and an increase in lynchings.

Jim Crow segregation, with African Americans relegated to second-class citizenship, came next, leading eventually to Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement that, Gates notes, sought to turn the prison system on its head by portraying going to jail for a cause as a noble action.

While the 1965 Civil Rights Act was passed to remedy that situation, “13th” underscores that an increase in crime and the Republican Southern Strategy, formulated under President Nixon, of having crime stand in for race in order to help turn the South from Democratic to Republican, pushed the other way.

The war on drugs promulgated by Republicans and Democrats alike extended this dynamic, with Gingrich commenting on the unfairness of criminalizing crack cocaine, prevalent in black neighborhoods, over the powder variety and President Clinton shown apologizing for his role in the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill that led to massive prison expansion.

“13th” covers so much territory that many of the events it incorporates, like the suicide of former Rykers Island inmate Khalief Browder and the police shooting of Black Panther Fred Hampton, can only be mentioned briefly.

Shown in considerable detail, however, is the work of ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), an organization that writes laws that benefit the major corporations that are its members. “There are people out there desperately trying to make sure the prison population does not drop by one person,” says Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, “because their economic model needs that.”

Though DuVernay has been working on this film for years, its footage of violence at Donald Trump rallies, linked to the candidate’s publicly expressed yearning for “the good old days,” brings its story chillingly up to date.

What “black lives matter” means in essence, one of this film’s voices says, “is that all lives matter,” a point “13th” makes with undeniable eloquence as well as persuasive force.

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No MPAA rating.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

Playing Laemmle's Monica, Santa Monica. Streaming on Netflix.

Critic's Choice. “13th.” Offering a brisk, cogently argued alternative to conventionally taught American history, Ava DuVernay’s powerful, persuasive documentary systematically covers a century and a half of race relations in this country. — Kenneth Turan

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