Film Review by Kam Williams
DuVernay Documentary Indicts Criminal Justice System as Vestige of Slavery
A year ago, many felt that Ava DuVernay was snubbed when she wasn't nominated for an Oscar for directing Selma. Furthermore, none of the picture's cast or crew members were nominated, despite the fact that it had been very well received by audiences and critics alike. But Selma apparently wasn't being singled out, as African-Americans were entirely overlooked by the Academy for the second year in a row.
Since then, the Academy has taken steps to make the Oscars more inclusive, starting with inviting more minorities to join its ranks. That bodes well for Ava in terms of her latest offering, 13th, a searing indictment of the criminal justice system as a shameful vestige of chattel slavery.
The documentary's title was inspired by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which ended the institution of slavery "except as a punishment for a crime." The movie's basic thesis is that, after the Civil War, racists seized on that loophole to keep the black masses in chains.
The film features interviews with an array of luminaries, including Angela Davis, Senator Cory Booker, Dr. Henry Louis Gates and attorney Michelle Alexander, author of "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness."
Inter alia, 13th blames D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) for resurrecting the Ku Klux Klan by demonizing black males. It goes on to point out that over 300 Klansmen were elected delegates to the 1924 Democratic National Convention.
Though an arch-conservative, Newt Gingrich adopts a sympathetic posture regarding the plight of African-Americans, observing that "Virtually no one who is white understands the challenge of being black in America." And former Green Czar Van Jones, who served in the Obama administration, asks a very thought-provoking question, namely, "Why is the black community so weak in defending itself?"
Part of the answer is revealed in the profit-maximizing agenda of the Corrections Corporation of America, a company which has successfully lobbied to expand and privatize the prison industry. The upshot is that today there are millions of blacks behind bars, a sad reflection of the reality that a defendant is way better off in the courts being rich and guilty than poor and innocent.
The incendiary expose' closes with Jones asserting that the Black Lives Matter movement "is not a stoppable phenomenon" because it's fundamentally about reshaping the country's understanding of human dignity. It'll certainly be interesting to see how things shake out, given the ascension of Donald Trump, who has taken the position that "All lives matter" while declaring himself the law-and-order president-elect.
Excellent (4 stars)
Running time: 100 minutes
To see a trailer for 13th, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V66F3WU2CKk