Although it is appearing in the heart of the pre-Halloween season, 13th is not a film about triskaidekaphobia or hockey-masked serial killers; its horrors are deeper and more pervasive. The title of Ava DuVernay's powerful new documentary refers to the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery in the United States but retains a significant loophole: "...except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." For DuVernay and the many historians and activists who speak in her film, that simple exception opened the door for a system that essentially kept slavery alive by giving it a new name and methodology.
The central target of 13th is the American prison system, the largest in the world, which has become both a way of continuing the post-Civil War Jim Crow laws, and a major economic industry dominated by commercial firms that are paid to operate prisons and use the profits to lobby for new laws that help keep prisons full. It's a complex story spanning more than a century, and while DuVernay tells it both clearly and comprehensively, there are more than a few times where you find yourself wishing that a movie could include footnotes.
Although the increasing and racially disproportionate prison population provides the underlying structure, it's only half the story. With an extensive selection of historical footage and a small army of expert witnesses, historians and commentators (including Angela Davis, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cory Booker, Michelle Alexander — even Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist) 13th goes deeper to tell a far more agonizing story, the continued history of American racism all the way from Reconstruction to the summer of 2016. DuVernay reaches wide — the film hits subjects as diverse as the murder of Emmett Till, voting rights, the War on Drugs, the murder of Fred Hampton, the trial of Angela Davis, the murder of Trayvon Martin — but skillfully finds the facts and footage to defend her historical points, all in less than 120 minutes. What could easily have become a jumble of sound bites and film clips is instead a masterful work of editing and concise writing.
One important theme is that a society seeking to oppress and dominate an entire race can only do so by taking control over how that race is perceived. DuVernay shows how racist forces have worked to demonize African-Americans and control that image, from grotesque nineteenth century cartoons and the historical revisionism of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, right up to the 1990s concept of the "super predator" (the latter a creation so easily embraced across the political spectrum that Hillary Clinton is still being shadowed by her use of it in a 1996 speech). White politicians create an exaggerated projection of what blackness means, and then create new rules such as the "stand your ground" laws based on their own imaginary misconceptions.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about 13th is that it's not an historical film; it's relentlessly, unavoidably contemporary. This will not come as a surprise to anyone who's followed current events in the last four or five years, but that doesn't make it any more comfortable. DuVernay's film is a challenge, a confrontation, and no one gets off the hook. Although she presents a few conservative apologists and allows a few partisan shots, DuVernay clearly sees racism as a problem that reaches beyond politics. That doesn't prevent her from reaching all the way up to the current election to drive a point home. The Clintons come under fire (the former President for signing the 1994 Three Strikes crime bill, his wife for the "super predator" remark), while the Trump campaign provides material for the film's most devastating segment, a scene that compresses more than 50 years of hatred into a single violent montage. It's brilliant and terrifying, a chilling summation of everything the film has shown before it and why it matters.
With her last film, Selma, DuVernay offered a respectful history lesson. With 13th, she goes many steps further. It too is a history lesson, but it's also a powerful work of analysis and a call for action.