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film fatales #23 / oscar run: 13th (ava duvernay, 2016)

This documentary from Netflix joins ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America as Oscar nominees that were made for television. The subject matter is named in the title, which refers to the 13th amendment. This amendment intended to abolish slavery, but DuVernay’s film argues that the key phrase, “except as a punishment for crime”, left the door open for the continued oppression of blacks. Instead of slaves, whites could draw on a supply of black criminals, and they made sure there were plenty of such criminals to pick from.

DuVernay isn’t addressing slavery straight on, but using it to get to her key theme, that America’s prison system is abhorrent, and has grown rapidly in recent decades. Prisons have replaced plantations. She points particularly to Richard Nixon, who promoted himself as a “law and order” president. None of the subsequent presidents escape DuVernay’s wrath, with Bill Clinton receiving the most pointed attacks for his awful Omnibus Crime Bill, which did more to create prison overcrowding than anything else.

DuVernay marshals an impressive array of talking heads for 13th. It is no surprise to see former inmates articulating life in prison, nor is it unusual to see, for instance, Angela Davis, herself a former inmate, offer intelligent analysis. A few people from Nixon’s circle admit that they specifically singled out black Americans. There are even some surprises ... Newt Gingrich, of all people, adds a measured, reasonable voice.

A movie like 13th is a work of activism, and to some extent, an evaluation of the film demands that we examine how well it makes its points. DuVernay isn’t “fair” in the way old-school journalism believed in. The film is not objective. But it does use facts to buttress its points, and all of those talking heads make for quite a board of experts. It is arguably too short ... DuVernay packs the films with so much information, it is sometimes hard to process, and she might have been better off with a multi-episode television series.

There is one artistic move she makes that I found extremely irritating, although I haven’t seen many other people complain. Her talking heads regularly speak towards some space off camera, rarely looking directly at the viewer. It’s as if she saw Mr. Robot and decided she’d like to try something new. But there seems to be no reason for this. It is just distracting, which is certainly a problem when you are presenting so much information.

There is plenty to learn from 13th, and DuVernay is a passionate artist. But the overwhelming pile of information, and the distractions of the stylistic selections, detract from some of the power. Nonetheless, 8/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

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