Ava DuVernay’s careers in activism, publicity, and filmmaking have demonstrated a defiant belief that not only can Hollywood change in a short span of time, but also popular opinion. 13th will leave you hoping, at the very least, that she’s right: As with Selma, DuVernay has fashioned a work of pummeling and clear-eyed intelligence, tracing an undeniable disparity between legislative and de facto rights for black Americans from the end of the Civil War to the present. How and why the United States ended up housing 2.5 million prison inmates is a paradox posed by none other than President Obama in the film’s first minutes, and 13th spells it out with the enraged mettle of an extralegal filibuster. The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery except as punishment for a convicted crime; “criminal” is thus the noun into which 13th digs its analyses, while an upward ticker sees the number of prison inmates mushrooming over the last few decades.
The mass-incarceration era as we know it today began in the 1970s, which Angela Davis explains to DuVernay is when “crime” became a stand-in for race. This Nixon-era rhetorical inversion is key to the film’s inquiry: DuVernay explicates ways in which declarative, open-ended “wars” (whether Nixon’s on drugs or, it’s implied, Bush’s on terror) can, by default, avail themselves to extremist interpretations at every level of the law-and-order apparatus. It’s also a study of semiotic historicism, considering at one point George H.W. Bush’s infamous 1988 Willie Horton campaign spot in the context of the century-long stereotype of the “menacing negro evil” described by scholar Jelani Cobb, threatening the peace of a white status quo. (Bush strategist Lee Atwater himself appears in a candid audio recording from 1982, breaking down the coded language used to scoop new Republican voters in the post-LBJ South; once “nigger” was no longer acceptable for candidates to say out loud, verbiage about “states’ rights” and “cutting taxes” knowingly took its place.)
The influence exerted on taxpayers’ actual lives by mythmaking and demonology is a running theme, from the Klu Klux Klan’s adoption of cross-burning after seeing it in The Birth of a Nation, to Cory Booker musing that our assumptions of due process probably owe too much to TV melodramas. That aside comes out during a devastating passage on plea bargaining, whereby many young black men who can’t afford a legal team have traded their right to due process in favor of a lighter prison sentence. Kalief Browder, who spent three years in Rikers Island on a bogus charge, was interviewed for DuVernay’s film shortly before taking his own life; he describes his refusal to reach such an agreement on false charges, literally weighing his own freedom against justice. The film switches between hard findings like this and piercing insights in passing, like when activist Bryan Stevenson affirms that the American judicial system is “better to the rich and guilty than the poor and innocent.”
Bill Clinton comes under special scrutiny for his signing (and championing) of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which normalized a number of the statutes DuVernay finds to have solidified the crisis in perpetuity—including one-size-fits-all mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders, elimination of in-prison education systems, and a three-strikes policy resulting in longer sentences for the previously convicted. Chastised in 2016 for referring to black criminals as “superpredators” 20 years earlier, Hillary Clinton has allowed herself to be caught on camera nevertheless defending Bill Clinton’s 1994 bill as a political necessity while decrying it as an overreaction; her husband’s recent rebuttal to a group of Black Lives Matters protesters that “you are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter!” imbues the documentary with a profound skepticism toward the about-face’s sincerity, which may disappoint Hillary’s supporters in powerful places. But the record speaks for itself, as do Donald Trump’s wistful invocations of “the good old days” to his supporters as they encounter an African-American dissident at one of his rallies—an audio selection made horrifying in repeat playbacks by DuVernay, against images from the 1960s of a black man being assaulted by a white mob.
No theoretical frameworks are required for the cellphone footage of police victims like Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and Philandro Castile—but it’s in keeping with the enduring pragmatism of DuVernay’s approach that 13th’s interviewees actively question the pros and cons of using this kind of imagery to shock people into paying attention. By the time that sequence begins, the videos have made manifest a paranoid environment of carceral thinking whose evolution 13th has taken pains to outline; without slogans or banners, this is an ideology nonetheless, and given the preponderance of police abuses in the news daily, there’s a sense that DuVernay’s editing could have gone on forever.
The outsized influence of the lobbying group American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to pass bills supporting the private-prison industry—as well as laws like Stand Your Ground, whereby George Zimmerman escaped conviction for the murder of Trayvon Martin—is explored in jaw-dropping detail. One of DuVernay’s interviewees describes a vision of law enforcement whereby ankle bracelets and GPS help the state keep track of potential offenders, would-be or otherwise. These revelations don’t just speak to racism against African-Americans; they form a shadow history of privatization-as-ideology that applies just as well to ongoing congressional paralysis in the face of, say, NRA lobbyists following yet another mass shooting.
Even the roster of speakers testifies to DuVernay’s acumen as a producer and public presence, ranging from The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander and Van Jones to Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist. There are moments when the slickness of the filmmaking works opposite the tragic material to uncanny effect, but the imperative to render discussion in conversational, human terms balances out the speed and force of 13th’s breathless delivery of the hard facts. The Black Lives Matter movement is revealed as a consequence of these abuses of power (whether by police departments, prisons, or multinational corporations), albeit a hopeful one, fully aware it’s just one step in a much larger process. Beyond sanity and fairness, white fear is how loopholes within law enforcement have become norms; duly, it’s hard to avoid a creeping sense that 13th will serve as harshest wake-up call for the white beneficiaries of these laws. As the documentary demonstrates time and again, none of these events have taken place in a vacuum.