Over the last few days, we’ve seen a few films being made free to stream in the US. These included Selma and Just Mercy. Both films should help educate people about the role of race in their society. It’s a great thing to do because there will be plenty of people who won’t have previously had access to them. Of course, Hollywood films that depict the difficulties faced by black people in America are all well and good but it’s facts that are needed in this fight. Which is why Netflix’s decision to make Ava DuVarney’s documentary 13th free to non-subscribers is so important. There’s a reason that it has appeared on so many lists of ways you can educate yourself. It’s a great place to start if you’re the type who is unconvinced by the idea that society has been engineered to make black lives difficult. If you go in with an open mind, it’ll definitely have the power to shock you.
Ava DuVernay is a fantastic director and one who has done so much to tell black stories. Her Netflix series Now They See Us was an amazing dramatisation of the botched police investigation that caused the Central Park 5 to be locked up for a crime they didn’t commit. She has such a delicate touch and brings humanity to her work. Her documentary, 13th was made in secret and was only announced when it opened the 2016 New York Film Festival. It was the first documentary to do so and was met with great praise all round. It takes its title from the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted in 1865, which abolished slavery throughout the United States and ended involuntary servitude.
Well, except for people who had committed a crime. It is this loophole, the documentary tells us, that meant the government could keep on using black people for free labour. What followed over the next 100 or so years, was a period of mass incarceration that was highly biased towards black people. The film opens with the statistic that America has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of its prisoners. This is all just a consequence of trying to keep slavery going but under a different name. To do make this possible, it was necessary to vilify black people and turn them into dangerous criminals in the minds of white citizens. The film explores fascist propaganda and government policy that all, in its own way, perpetuated the idea that black people were good for nothing but a prison cell.
There is a huge passion coming from everyone who DuVernay talks to and plenty of anger. This never pollutes the message. The documentary is very clear and careful with its argument. It talks to several activists, academics, political figures from both major US political parties, and public figures, such as Angela Davis, Bryan Stevenson, Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, Cory Booker, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and others. Everyone is used effectively for the film and the talking heads bring a personal and human touch to the endless statistics. It makes the messages all the more horrifying but it does help get the message across.
For my mind, the talking heads, the archive footage, and the facts are the only things needed to make this work. The musical accompaniments are great but, potentially, distracting. What should stand out is the message. 13th manages to put the spotlight on some important issues that were obviously hidden for so long. The film analyses the impact of ALEC – American Legislative Exchange Council – and the number of laws it helped create. It was ALEC that had a huge hand in the private prison business that is making big bucks for unscrupulous people. It also raises some great points about the campaign to elect George H.W. Bush and the use of Willie Horton in a campaign video. This is the kind of film that is so full of facts that it will beat you down. It’s meant to beat you down. After all, the system has been beating down black people for long enough. This is a very well-made and passionate documentary. It is exactly the kind of thing that will get you thinking about your own place in society. It will haunt you.