'13th': NYFF Review

A definitive film of the moment.

Ava DuVernay's documentary, which opens the New York Film Festival ahead of its premiere in theaters and on Netflix, explores racial inequality in the U.S. justice system.

Talk about timing. Drilling deep into societal ills that, unfortunately, are seldom off the front page these days, Ava DuVernay's 13th takes a comprehensive historical look at the numerous ways the African-American population has continued to be subjugated, marginalized, penalized, punished, victimized and incarcerated over the century and a half since the 13th amendment abolished slavery.

Composed yet intense, measured yet impassioned, analytical yet deeply emotional, this eloquently articulated testimony as to how far the nation remains from true racial equality will be a must-see for the socially engaged public, will spur countless reflections in the media and will be widely watched upon its simultaneous premieres beginning Oct. 7 on Netflix and in limited theatrical engagements. This is the first documentary to ever serve as the opening-night attraction at the New York Film Festival.

Enacted on Jan. 31, 1865, the 13th amendment addressed the young nation's “original sin” by outlawing involuntary servitude, but with one exception — “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Southern gentry quickly found ways around the prohibition of its “peculiar institution,” making would-be offenses such as “loitering” and “vagrancy” punishable crimes (although the film doesn't examine other subsequent policies, including “Black Codes” and peonage, which pushed penniless freed slaves into onerous contracts and loans that put them in perpetual debt).

An illustrious cast of eminent scholars, historians, activists and politicians knowledgeably expounds upon the historical issues and movements, both vast and minute, that left Southern blacks with little chance of improving their lot in life; the laws and terminology may have changed, but attitudes and social practices hardly at all. The resurgence of the long dormant Ku Klux Klan is shown to have been the direct result of its heroic portrayal in D.W. Griffith's 1915 blockbuster The Birth of a Nation, as was the racist group's heretofore unknown practice of burning crosses. (The film doesn't note, however, that cross burning was an invention not of Griffith but of Thomas Dixon, Jr., the author of the 1905 novel The Clansman, on which the film was based; he took it from something Scottish clansmen did centuries earlier.)

Newsreel footage of a multitude of Klan members — and no black delegates — participating in the 1924 National Democratic Convention is stunning to behold. The film might have taken a moment to point out that President Theodore Roosevelt's appointment of many blacks, for the first time, to federal government jobs was summarily reversed by Southern Democrat Woodrow Wilson within a month of his taking office.

In her first film since breaking through with Selma two years ago, and in league with co-writer, producer and editor Spencer Averick, DuVernay leaves such fascinating related issues to the side so as to never lose sight of her central premise, that the bedrock social problem for the American black population — and arguably for the nation as a whole — since the Civil War has been the perpetuation of “a myth of black criminality,” as it's put by African-American studies scholar Jelani Cobb. In reaction to white social, physical and sexual fears came entrenched segregation, voting restrictions, highly prohibitive Jim Crow laws in the South and other nationwide social “norms” too numerous to list, from segregated schools to the absence of blacks in the FBI and on professional sports teams.

But it was during the civil rights movement that things started boiling over in ways impossible to ignore. Devastating footage reminds us of how the murderers of 15-year-old Emmett Till escaped justice, the way Southern cops, in particular, savagely beat protestors on the streets, how spies and informers heavily infiltrated the inner circles of Malcolm X and how authorities obsessed over the Black Panthers as a huge threat to national order. In an archival interview, Nixon aide John Ehrlichman explicitly articulates how the “law and order” president identified his two main domestic enemy targets as being the anti-war left and blacks, while at the same time convincing socially conservative Southerners that their proper political home was with him and no longer with the Democrats, thereby radically altering the political map to this day.

DuVernay's determination never to stray far from the criminalization issue really pays off in the second half, when her attention turns to the massive rise of the prison population, blacks' hugely disproportionate place in it, the subsequent corporatization of the detention process and the militarization of law enforcement. As part of the film's critique of Reagan's war on drugs and “Just Say No” advocacy, none other than Newt Gingrich blasts the fact that prison sentences related to crack cocaine, seen as a “black” drug and the reason for so much crime in the inner cities, were so severe compared to the slaps on the wrists for users of powdered coke, a so-called “white” high of choice.

But worse, in the film's view, was the big 1994 federal crime bill enthusiastically pushed by Bill Clinton, who was so often kiddingly referred to at the time as the “first black president.” With this came the three-strikes rule, mandatory minimum sentencing, diminished chances for parole and a virtual doubling of the federal prison population between 1990 and 2000. Clinton is later seen regretting this, but the way was now paved for the birth of the “Prison Industrial Complex,” a system of incarceration as a commercial enterprise which not only assumes but demands an ever-growing prison population to enhance the bottom line.

But the real bottom line, as the doc persistently announces, is the size of the U.S. prison population and blacks' wildly disproportionate representation within it. Among the key statistics underlined: In 1972, the U.S. prison population was 200,000, and now it's 2.3 million; black men make up 6.5 percent of the U.S. population, but 40.2 percent of the prison population; and one in three black men “can expect to go to prison in their lifetimes.”

Providing startling exclamation points are the claim that a staggering 97 percent of all inmates are incarcerated due to plea bargains, meaning they never went to trial, and a climactic assemblage of videos picturing police shootings of detainees (all included, it is noted, with “family permission”).

There are so many angles on this vast subject, and so many historical, cultural and legal details that the film, by necessity, had to leave out, that at least a 10-hour documentary miniseries could have been warranted to encompass it all. Any historian, journalist, politician, activist, judge, attorney, law enforcement officer and, for that matter, criminal worth his or her salt would have something to say about all the facts, figures and viewpoints laid out here. To say 13th is stimulating and thought-provoking is the understatement of the year.

But two things in particular work overwhelmingly in the film's favor. One is its tone of poised urgency; all 38 of the interviewed commentators speak in measured, articulate tones without advocating burning the house down, yet they collectively convey a certainty that something is very wrong and that immediate actions must be taken to right the ship. The other is its maintenance of focus; no matter how many fascinating trips down side roads of history may have beckoned, DuVernay and Averick never stray far from the itinerary they clearly set for themselves, which was to illuminate the distance the country still remains from its ideal of equality for all.

Venue: New York Film Festival (opening night)
Opens: Oct. 7 (Netflix)
Production company: Kandoo Films
Director: Ava DuVernay
Writers: Ava DuVernay, Spencer Averick
With: Melina Abdullah, Michelle Alexander, Corey Booker, Dolores Canales, Gina Clayton, Jelani Cobb, Malkia Cyril, Angela Davis, Craig Deroche, David Dinkins, Baz Dreisinger, Kevin Gannon, Henry Louis Gates, Marie Gottschalk, Newt Gingrich, Lisa Graves, Cory Greene, John Hagan, Michael Hough, Van Jones, David Keene, James Kilgore, Glenn F. Martin, Marc Mauer, Khalil G. Muhammad, Pat Nolan, Grover Norquist, Dorsey Nunn, Liza Jessie Peterson, Charles B. Rangel, Kyung-Ji Kate, Rhee Shaka Senghor, Bob Sloan, Deborah Peterson Small, Bryan Stevenson, Ken Thompson, Nicholas Turner, Daniel Wagner
Producers: Howard Barish, Ava DuVernay, Spencer Averick
Directors of photography: Hans Charles, Kira Kelly
Editor: Spencer Averick
Music: Jason Moran

Not rated, 100 minutes