Ava DuVernay (Selma) shot this documentary about how American society has categorically rigged the game against black people, even with slavery being formally “abolished” over 150 years ago, in secret, and in a move that seems nothing if not democratic, had it released straight to Netflix rather than touring it around the art-house circuit. As important as it is sobering and infuriating, 13th provide a concise, valuable history lesson with eye-opening clarity while refusing to skimp on the details.
Even though it clocks in at just 100 minutes in length, 13th manages to squeeze an almost unthinkable amount of information into such a short time-frame, while avoiding a rote bombardment of facts because of both the passion of the interview subjects (typically prominent figures in the American black community) and the sheer incredulous, scarcely-believable nature of so much of what we’re told.
From the passing of the 13th Amendment through to present attempts to achieve black agency in the U.S. via the Black Lives Matter movement, DuVernay argues with astonishing persuasion that little has changed in terms of the bigger picture, and while we might wish to sneer at prior generations who committed seemingly heinous attacks against blacks, we as a society still have a long way to go in achieving anything resembling equality.
To her enormous credit, DuVernay doesn’t let either side of the political spectrum off the hook, for while firing blame at Conservatives is like shooting fish in a barrel, Democrats don’t exactly have a clean history in this department themselves. Footage of Bill Clinton apologising for signing bills that increased incarceration of blacks in America is especially haunting, with the damage done by it basically impossible to reverse.
Amid the slew of brutal statistics and devastating realities, perhaps the worst of all is DuVernay’s inability – as well as our own – to posit a reasonable, all-catch solution to the institutional racism that has hounded black people for centuries. We as a society are of course a work-in-progress, but the troubling picture of contemporary America, with its private prisons, dubious police shootings and so on, suggests we’re perhaps not as evolved as we like to think we are.
It’ll be a genuine shock if this magnificently dense, extremely convincing film doesn’t scoop the Best Documentary Oscar next year, because it’s one of the most, if not the most, important works of the year.
13th is available now on Netflix