This year the New York Film Festival opened with a documentary! Capturing a distinct Zeitgeist moment, in The 13th, Ava DuVernay limns a history of racism in America from the time of the 13th Amendment to the present through the filter of prisons and policies of mass incarceration, seen as the equivalent or updated version of slavery. Her narrative is compelling, a clear-eyed history crafted from archival footage and interviews. Many are talking Oscar for Best Picture.
But DuVernay seems unfazed. At a press conference, she peered out at the audience looking for a "sister" to tell her whether her skirt was okay. After her success with Selma last year, she remains free of airs, as she explained how this film came about. After the Oscar's last year, in the flare up over the disproportionate ethnicity represented at the Academy Awards, the documentary division at Netflix asked Ava DuVernay what she would like to do next. Realizing that prison was so much a part of the life of her community, DuVernay set out to examine the aftermath of the 13th: Jim Crow, the effect of punishment for profit, Black Lives Matter, from segregated lunch counters to Ferguson to "I can't breathe."
Looking at the language of the 13th Amendment that ended slavery--except for criminals, DuVernay digs deep into laws and practices that restrict our democracy. What ensued from the 13th Amendment was a chain of ways to declare criminality, from minor offences on, most often against people of color. The historic sweep extends to the current presidential campaign: Hillary Clinton declaring her priority to reform our prison system, Donald Trump exhorting followers at rallies toward violence against protesters, most often white against black.
This is an important film, noteworthy for what is in it: Obama, the first ever president to visit a prison. And for what is not: O. J. Simpson, a story many people saw for its implicit discourse on race in America, is omitted from this narrative. DuVernay keeps her focus; there are more than enough instances to fill a feature length film on this subject, as everyone will see this Friday when it airs on Netflix. Let the conversation begin.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.