Nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary, Ava DuVernay’s devastating 13th is back for an encore engagement at IFC Center. DuVernay’s follow-up to the Oscar-nominated Selma, her feature debut about the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, examines the history of institutional racism from slavery to today, focusing on the phrase of the 13th Amendment that says, “except as a punishment for crime.” Using archival footage, animation, music, and new interviews, DuVernay traces the criminalization of African Americans beginning with the passage of the amendment in 1865. “There’s really no understanding of our American political culture without race at the center of it,” Harvard professor Khalil G. Muhammad says. The film explores the 150-year demonization of blacks as the government built a fear-based narrative that led to the frightening imbalance in the incarceration of African Americans that has escalated dramatically since the 1970s. Among the issues that are covered are mandatory minimum sentencing, the wealth gap, the crack epidemic, the Southern Strategy, the Three Strikes law, the KKK, the Central Park Five, the 1994 crime bill, white privilege, Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No program, Willie Horton, prison labor, the Civil Rights Act, and the ongoing cultural depiction of blacks as wild animals that need to be caged. DuVernay has assembled a wide-ranging collection of experts who share their views, including Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., Maryland state senator and ALEC member Michael Hough, educator and author Michelle Alexander, UConn professor Jelani Cobb, UC Santa Cruz professor emerita Angela Davis, former American Conservative Union chairman David Keene, Grandview University professor Kevin Gannon, Dream Corps founder and president Van Jones, American Conservative Union board member Grover Norquist, and formerly incarcerated activists Shaka Senghor, Pat Nolan, Cory Greene, and Craig DeRoche in addition to such politicians as David Dinkins, Charles B. Rangel, Cory Booker, and former Speaker of the House and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. “The objective reality is that virtually no one who is white understands the challenge of being black in America,” Gingrich explains.
Cinematographers Hans Charles and Kira Kelly photograph most of the speakers in front of brick walls and windows, as if confined from the outside world, except for Davis, who is in a cavernous abandoned space. Editor Spencer Averick, who also cowrote the film with DuVernay, interweaves compelling footage of such presidents as Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton alongside staggering statistics, scenes from D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, bold graphics, songs by Nina Simone, Killer Mike, Public Enemy, dead prez, Nas, the Roots, Usher, and soundtrack composer Jason Moran, and news clips to show the progression of the mass incarceration dilemma since the passage of the 13th Amendment, which reads in full: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” It’s a terrifying and sad legacy of America, the supposed “land of the free,” and one that isn’t getting much better, even after eight years under the country’s first black president. A Netflix original, DuVernay’s film is filled with surprising connections and fascinating insight that should embarrass anyone who believes that we are living in some kind of postracial society in which racism is going away. It’s not an easy film to watch, but it is a film that needs to be seen.