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The New York Film Festival, which opened September 30, has discovered its inner political consciousness. However belatedly, it joins the great European sprocket operas, particularly Cannes and Berlin, where politics is part of festival and cinephiles' DNA.

Past iterations of the NYFF (from the Film Society of Lincoln Center) have been knocked for their esthetic purism and art films more accessible to cinephiliacs than mainstream viewers. The fest recently went more "pop" by opening with such spiritual anthems as Life of Pi from Ang Lee, which, while offering mass appeal with its kumbaya religiosity, also stunningly harnessed 3D to art film. And of course Michael Moore's one-man brawling broadsides have long found a home at the NYFF.

In a major departure from hoary history, though, this year the fest opened its 54th iteration with a documentary, The 13th by Ava Du Vernay (Selma). The title refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which reads "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."

The 13th is a scorching indictment of America's prison industrial complex, which Du Vernay's commentators expose as a pernicious extension of slavery by other means. Drawing on devastating archival footage and a cast of astute analysts ranging from Angela Davis (in Cuba, we presume from the decaying grandeur of her background), to Michelle Alexander, to Cory Booker, to Henry Louis Gates, DuVernay traces the historical links of her thesis with an unassailable logic that's both bracing in its exactitude and infuriating in its revelation of how prison profiteers have mounted an insidious latter-day assault on people of color.

The 13th should remain front and center in the national conversation about America. It must never be allowed to disappear. That said, this film as fest opener tells more about a moral imperative to unmask a new racism than it does about esthetic values.

Sergei Eisenstein stirred up outrage with agit-prop drama that pushed the envelope of cinema even as it cried out against the subjugation of workers. The 13th stirs up outrage alright, as it exposes the systematic enslavement of African-Americans in jails, where they are often required to give free labor to major corporations -- yet it can't be said to have pushed the envelope of the documentary form.

Still, opening the fest with The 13th is somehow appropriate to this year of momentous political decisions and a populace rife with discontent. The NYFF seems to be stating that art does not exist in a vacuum, that cinema must bear witness when America is home to a hateful injustice.

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