On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.
I've been putting off watching Ava DuVernay's documentary 13th despite its critical acclaim (and recent Oscar nomination), because social-issue documentaries are easily my least favorite movie genre, and I usually don't have much to say about them. Even in these politically turbulent times, I do my best to avoid politics both in my writing and in my personal life, and focusing on the cinematic merits of movies like 13th is often difficult when their political message seems to be all that matters to viewers and critics. If not for this project, I might have simply passed on the movie entirely.
I can't say that I regret watching 13th, but I can't say that I got much out of it, either, from a cinematic or a political perspective. The title refers to the 13th amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery but also established the legality of forced servitude as punishment for a crime, and DuVernay takes that as the origin of the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans in the U.S. The movie starts, then, just after the Civil War and goes through the present day, which gives it a lot of ground to cover. DuVernay's focus on the idea of mass incarceration allows her to narrow her scope a bit, but the movie still makes plenty of digressions and jumps around in time, sometimes getting lost along the way.
A lot of the historical material may be a little basic for anyone with a working knowledge of U.S. history, and the message is most powerful toward the end of the movie, when DuVernay connects current rhetoric (including from Donald Trump, who was still just a presidential candidate when the movie was produced) to the more inflammatory and blatantly racist words and actions of the past. Her point about the expression of racism simply taking on different forms over time comes through most clearly in the final stretch, when she strongly connects current events to episodes from the past that most people agree were inexcusable.
Cinematically, the movie is straightforward and unadventurous, combining talking-head interviews (featuring scholars, activists and politicians) with archival footage. At least DuVernay doesn't try to include entertainers or artists among her interviewees; everyone she talks to is authoritative and involved with the subject they're addressing. She even allows a handful of conservatives to offer counterarguments, and while she's obviously opposed to what they're saying, she doesn't just set them up for Michael Moore-style takedowns. For people who know little about the history of race relations in America, the movie is relatively informative, although I wonder if any of those people will actually watch it. More likely, it's allowing people already familiar with these ideas the chance to pat themselves on the back for being on the right side. There's nothing wrong with feeling proud of your views on the world, but that's different from great filmmaking. Should this movie be shown in schools? Sure. Should it win an Oscar? Definitely not.