Ava DuVernay’s 13th bites down on the gristly notion of the USA as ‘The Land of the Free’, chews with bitter discomfort and consequently spits it out, unable to swallow. The thudding irony of this long-held mantra is made clear in the opening moments of the Selma director’s latest project with plainly shocking statistics, delivered in an unseen address by Barack Obama: with just 5% of the world’s population, the United States has 25% of its prisoners. Far from being a land of milk, honey and liberty, DuVernay’s scathing vision of America reveals that an astonishing one in four of all inmates globally languishes behind bars.
DuVernay attempts to proffer some kind of rhyme and/or reason for the aforementioned figures and in particular the disproportionately high number of black males in incarceration. It’s a valiant call to arms, a beacon of defiance, but one that could have burned more violently than it ultimately does. Throughout 13th the exploitation of rhetoric is intrinsically linked to the subjugation of people and it’s in DuVernay’s chosen title that the crux of her argumentation – and justification for many, if not all, of the ills witnessed here – rests. The thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution states: ‘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’ – except as a punishment for crime.
Six words that from the abolition of slavery to the killing of Trayvon Martin have permitted the manipulation, mistreatment, murder and mass incarceration of the African American population. Was there a difference between a chain gang convicted of petty crimes and cotton pickers owned by slavers? No. Is there a difference in modern day American jails where large corporations use inmates to make furniture, clothing and other mass-produced items? No. The Civil Rights movement, Nixon’s War on Crime, the Reagans’ War on Drugs, Clinton’s 3-strike and Federal Crime bills: From first to last, 1865 to 2015, there is an enraging sense of history repeating itself here, a self-perpetuating cycle of stereotypes, prejudice and ulterior motives of bigoted, self-righteous establishments that offers little hope of progress or a brighter more just future.
DuVernay’s multiple subjects – all of whom are eloquent and engaging – often sit at right angles from her camera a little off-kilter, justifiably leading with a cold shoulder. In the film’s latter stages one interviewee states: “You have to shock people into paying attention.” DuVernay’s film doesn’t quite achieve this same such fervour. With the American electorate standing on a precipice, soon to choose the next ‘Leader of the Free World’, there is a sense that the academics, liberals and forward-thinking people featured in this film are preaching to the converted and those of a similar mind who are likely to see it. Will the early call in 13th to learn lessons from history be heeded by those who must truly hear it? We can but hope.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens