Saturday, October 8, 2016
Ava DuVernay's 13TH
It's not enough to look at one thing to analyze what is wrong with it, is a key point that may get overlooked (or simply not exactly the focus, but between the lines) in Ava DuVernay's powerful indictment of an entire society. When you look at the systemic issues of racism in this country, slavery is the key thing, and the title refers to the 13th amendment to the constitution (need a cinematic reference point, see Spielberg's Lincoln for more), and how one small line in the amendment referring to how slavery is outlawed except, kinda, sorta, for criminals, is paramount in how black people and bodies have been treated in the 150 years since the end of the Civil War.
Because at extremely crucial times in history, like right after the signing of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, black people were not in positions of power or government or, of course, in business (as this doc goes very in depth on), figures who spouted 'Law and Order' and "War on Drugs" made life not a matter of inconvenience or difficult for blacks, it was more like a refitting or metamorphosis of the sort of principle that went into slavery - keep everyone repressed and afraid, and if they get out of line they have to work and work for no wages and have little rights - into the modern age. Anyone can look up the statistics about how high the prison incarceration rates have gone up over the past 45 years (this despite the fact that, at least since the 1990's, crime rates have gone down generally speaking nationwide), and particularly for African Americans the struggle is that, well, 1 out of 3 black men will go to prison in their lifetimes (vs how much smaller that ratio is for whites).
DuVernay's film is a mix of a variety of talking heads, muckraking information that might be out of a Michael Moore film about things like the ALEC company and the like who formulate actual legislation that is pro-for-profit prisons, and footage from the likes of Nixon and Reagan's most damning points looking "Presidential" while distorting the truth (and the even more damning points from their advisers caught on tape how they actually were going about specifically going after minorities as "threats" to the system). Constantly here, the thing is, nothing is in a vacuum. What we see from The Birth of a Nation by Griffith (incidentally I saw this doc mere hours after seeing Parker's new film, so this almost picks up where he left off), was that there actually was a film that one can say really did inspire people to commit acts of violence: hyping up the KKK to become a dominant force after years of being dormant and unpopular, by painting blacks as the "savages" that will come and rape and pillage your precious whites.
So much in that film may seem awful and hateful now, but also these sorts of images continue to be perpetuated, is what DuVernay is saying, and things are interconnected all the time; what happened with the Central Park Five in 1989; Willie Horton; Bill Clinton's crime bill; Mandatory Mininums; Trayvon Martin and Ferguson; all of these companies making bills for politicians that they can literally *fill in the blank* with their state name, which calls to question what a country is if corporations are writing bills. There's so much to unpack in the film, but as a director DuVernay keeps things moving at a pace that is electrifying but also never hard to take in. I'd want to watch this again more-so to admire the touches of filmmaking, all of the text pieces she puts up to accompany song transitions (Public Enemy for one), than even to take in pieces of information she puts out.
Also fascinating is how she puts the variety of talking heads here: we get people like Charlie Rangel (who was once very tough on crime and regrets it today) and mayor David Dinkins and Cory Booker and Angela Davis, but we also get to see Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist and a sort of spokesman for one of these ALEC type of companies (I forget his name). Having them juxtaposed with figures who have seen how awful this country has treated people of color in the justice system with drug laws that are meant to make criminal (that's a word that comes back again and again) makes for a viewing experience that can be startling but it keeps you on your toes. Will they possibly say something reasonable or reprehensible? Some watching it may not even know who Norquist is - I should think DuVernay made this film to last, not just for the 2016 year, albeit clips from Clinton and Trump, the latter some of the explosive racist moments at his campaign stops in the crowds, make it timely - but it shouldn't matter too much.
13th gives you a massive amount of facts and statistics, but it's never a lecture, and if it's a plea it's that people should realize real reforms don't or really can't happen overnight. Minds and attitudes need to change on a more fundamental level, where *centuries* of oppression have kept metastasizing like a cancer. And at the center of it is DuVernay creating a conversation and narrative that inspires a great many emotions, mostly sadness and anger, but is just as palpable as in her film Selma. A must-see.