13th, a documentary by filmmaker Ava DuVernay, takes its title from the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery and freed all those ensnared in it… but, argues the documentary, was slavery really ended? Or did it merely take a different form? It’s a little obvious to say that there’s a multitude of political issues at work with a subject like this; a multitude of political stances one can take in regards to this subject matter. I wasn’t concerned with that, at least not in my watching the documentary itself. For me, with 13th being a documentary, it really had one goal; not just to cover its subject thoroughly and invite discussion about it, but to get me to care about watching a documentary about the subject in the first place, which is something too few documentaries over the years have really tried to do. Well, coming out of my viewing of it now, I can say: I care. I absolutely do.
The film purports to be about how the criminal justice system has been and is abusing the black population of America, mostly by having the prison population be so disproportionately African-American, but where DuVernay really succeeds is making what this film is about a lot more than that. The film is actually about a number of topics, all covered with a heaping helping of style coupled with plenty of hip-hop and rap music to underline the film’s main points. And when I say style, I mean it; when I first started the film, I was actually a little bit in danger of writing it off almost entirely just based on DuVernay’s sense of presentation, which seemed to overshadow whatever point she was only on the cusp of making. The rap music, for instance, is used as an inter-topic transition, with the key words of the music appearing in giant letters on the screen a la Jean-Luc Godard; not to mention each time the word ‘criminal’ is spoken by an interviewee, DuVernay interposes a giant title card bearing the word in all-caps, bludgeoning you with what it seemed she wants you to feel about what she’s talking about. The more the film went on, though, the more it became apparent what she was really doing; DuVernay explores a bunch of seemingly barely-related topics, but, while doing so, still manages a tangentially-perceptible insidiousness underlying everything she covers that serves to make her actual point: that everything she is covering is, in reality, all about holding down and keeping down the post-13th-Amendment black population, which then evolved into the concept of finding a way to exploit them both for financial gain and for gain of additional power – hence how blacks are so commonly arrested, or even killed, all by the for-profit prison system.
This is effective, almost evilly so; it worms its way into your trust, so that at the end of it, you don’t even realize that you’ve been made to think about the whole situation the way DuVernay wants you to think about it. It’s to DuVernay’s, and the producers’, credit that this inception, this sense of manipulation is being used as a force for good, for positive cultural change; quite the opposite of what’s been happening and being used against the African-American population since the aftermath of the Civil War by all the powers that be, on both sides of the aisle. It’s pretty ingenious, if indeed it is intentional, and I’d like to think that it is. I’m really glad to have seen this, even if I felt mildly ill after my viewing of it; this is the sort of thing that really does need to be seen, as basically a cultural responsibility in today’s day and age. You may not want to, and you may even feel disgruntled if made to, but it is a point that needs to be hammered in, or bludgeoned with, if we are to better ourselves as a community, as a culture, and as a species. Not just a race, but as a people.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10