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New York Film Festival Opening Night: THE 13TH

New York Film Festival Opening Night: THE 13TH

While other film festivals are dabbling in La La Land and basking in Moonlight, the 54th New York Film Festival opted for a more political and urgent statement by selecting Ava DuVernay’s powerful documentary The 13th for its opening night gala.

The film screened this morning to a house full of teary-eyed liberal reporters (myself included) and there is no doubt that this moving, timely and also timeless film will find a welcome embrace amongst that wing of the intelligentsia. That it is a superb film helps it tons. But my skeptical mind wonders how much it will reach the other side of the aisle in this hyper-partisan environment. Still, if there is a cogent and concise argument to be made for its broader point, then this new Netflix title makes it.

Generally speaking, the film tackles the issue of mass incarceration in America—it begins with a powerful speech by Obama and explains that one quarter of the world’s prisoners are housed in the USA, which is only 5% of Earth’s population. The title of the movie is perhaps misleading—it focuses on a clause in the 13th Amendment that permits servitude as a result a criminal conviction. But the film springboards into a broader analysis of race relations in America and the prison system. In its whirlwind tour of slavery, Jim Crow, and Law and Order presidents, it does not return to what it calls that constitutional “loophole,” because it doesn’t need to: the language of the Amendment was never used to justify all those odious systems of repression—fear, ignorance, and greed served just fine.

My law nerdiness aside, The 13th is carefully crafted and meticulously researched. It presents a straightforward and fairly airtight argument: systems of racial oppression have existed in the Republic for as long as we have, they have merely reinvented themselves. Plantations gave way to segregated schools which gave way to prisons. And it is impossible to have a rational, thoughtful conversation about issues of race inequality in America without understanding that historical context. The documentary makes these points through a series of persuasive and powerful “talking heads,” sprinkled with available footage from past atrocities and injustices.

The central thrust of the story is surprisingly no longer very controversial—politicians from left to right today agree that our prisons are too costly and too crowded, and are looking for ways out of the quagmire (not as uniting will be the scenes dealing with police brutality and Black Lives Matter). But this unity was not always so—the coalition used to have the opposite goal, to be “tough on crime” regardless of its consequences. Thus, with the expected parade of horribles from Nixon’s “law and order” programs, to Reagan’s “war on drugs” and Clinton’s “predators,” DuVernay traces the problem carefully into its present incarnation. She even makes strong use of that original The Birth of a Nation and the devastating effects it had on race relations.

Most of the above will be known to the target audience, even if it serves as a welcome refresher. The film does thread newer ground when it picks up speed halfway through, as it offers insight into some of the questions it grapples with. How were politicians able to pass such oppressive criminal justice laws under the nose of activists from the 1960s and 1970s? Easy, she says: incarcerate, deport, or kill them. By the time Clinton proposed his infamous 1994 crime bill, there was no one around to stop him.

It is a shocking awaking that really anchors the emotional weight of the film. And what do we do about it today? Also interestingly, she advocates the increased use of social media and in particular gruesome videos as the way to get the population behind the side of justice. A brutal sequence towards the end with some of the most brutal recent happenings (which many of us understandably do not actively seek out) is particularly gut-punching.

The film is unapologetically political in its leanings—it excoriates Donald Trump in a short clip, though it has some unkind and even suspicious words to say about Hillary Clinton as well. It argues that while politicians today may be on the side of “fewer prisoners,” people whose lives are at stake cannot rely solely on them to fix the system, and that complacency is the same as surrender. It is sure to ruffle feathers—as good documentaries must do—and it does so without compunction.

After the screening DuVernay herself answered questions, explaining that she began working on the film almost two years ago, after her Oscar tour for Selma, after Netflix approached her. She said the subject spoke to her personally because she had grown up in a community with people constantly incarcerated. She also explained that she understood well how much freer she was as compared to her mother and grandmother, but argued there was much more work to do. And when asked to complete the blank: “The thing I love the most about being a black woman is ______” she responded “everything.”

Interestingly, DuVernay also spoke about what she hoped would be the reach of the film. She explained she included clips relevant to today’s presidential election because she believed that the place we are as a country now will be analyzed for decades to come, and it was important to remember it. She also said that she was glad this was getting Netflix distribution because she was worried about “movies segregation,” where you couldn’t “watch Selma in Selma or Compton in Compton.” DuVernay said that she thought black and brown men should be “exposed to more than a steady diet of Marvel films, no offense to Marvel.”

Powerful, provocative words from a talented filmmaker, and a daring if not expected choice from the Film Society of Lincoln Center to open their film festival.

Grade: A-

About The Author

J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam, a voting member of the New York Film Critics Online, has been a movie lover since he saw the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film in theaters at a tender age, and has been a devoted student of American film history every since. His favorite films range from Back to the Future to West Side Story, depending on the time of day, and has a mildly unhealthy obsessions with the Academy Awards. Any similarity with the slightly unstable writer in the seminal 1944 film 'The Lost Weekend' is pure coincidence

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