Of late, watching Ava DuVernay emerge as a powerful, uncompromising voice has been one of the great pleasures of observing the filmmaking landscape. As recently as four years ago, DuVernay was largely unknown, though she certainly had some prominent champions. Selma justifiably changed all that, especially after DuVernay and her film were largely ignored when the Academy Award nominations were doled out. In a happy irony, exclusion dramatically increased her prominence, helping to put her in high demand and making her one of the creators sought out for her insights when various discussions roiled around the industry. DuVernay may not have gotten an Oscar nomination, but she got a Barbie, dammit.
Given a platform, DuVernay is not going to squander it. Her new documentary, 13th, is a powerful explication and indictment of the institutionalized racism that persists in the United States, all under the auspices of offering a genial, ostensibly colorblind protection to the populace at large. The title refers to the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery. As the documentary notes, the specific language prohibited both “slavery” and “involuntary servitude,” but included the key caveat “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
In DuVernay’s reckoning (and in the assessment of many other scholars, most notably Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow), this exemption has been deployed like a poison for well over a century, artfully exploited to continually and viciously cast black citizens as irredeemable criminals. It’s a forced perception that drives reality, completed by laws constructed with awful artistry that disproportionately target those with a little more melanin to their skin (with the now notorious discrepancy between penalties for cocaine possession and crack possession as only the most prominent example of recent years). The primary thesis of 13th equates mass incarceration to slavery, but DuVernay’s overall point is even more general and pointed, arguing that systematic oppression is persistent, stealthy, and adaptable.
The evidence laid out by the film is dizzying and dismaying. DuVernay’s admirable inclination towards exhaustive examination can sometimes make 13th feel overstuffed, trapped by running time in skimming over the bleak history. There are stretches of the film that beg for the fiercely focused sprawl of Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, which took advantage of its nearly eight hour running time to so relentlessly contextualize the social fractures that fed into the dueling public perceptions of the O.J. Simpson murder trial that it felt like reliving history in real time. It’s easy and enticing to imagine DuVernay spending a half-hour on D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation alone. If that makes 13th a little unwieldy at times, it also marks its dazzling ambition and strident commitment to powerful, uncomfortable truths. And it further establishes DuVernay as a uncommonly vital filmmaker.