Go watch 13TH. Forget about the review, just go watch it, don’t overthink it. Then read Lee’s review.
The idea that we live in an unbalanced, cruel world continues to surprise us time and time again; how many times do the public en masse need to be fooled before we finally accept we just don’t understand fully how this world works? That we need to continue to listen to others, and hear their side of things, and practice compassion over all else continues to be the striving ideal behind documentaries like 13TH.
Yet director Ava DuVernay knows how the average person works, and it’s the public she needs to convince on this matter. Ultimately, the stepladder to change has always proven ragged and shaky when it comes to the officials calling the shots; each step higher threatens to give underfoot. So, therein, we get a few shock tactics: statistics without citation or back-up, loud lettering and aggressive rap to drive points home, not to mention actual footage of black people being murdered in all their unjust, unspeakable horror. It’s not the politicians that need convinced, it’s the average American, as well their worldwide compatriots, who need to wake up and put pressure on the system, and nothing works more effectively than an alarm bell’s ring.
It’s aggressive, powerful, moving footage; terrifying statistically and matter-of-factly, and important for all people to see, regardless of how educated you might feel you are on the subject. DuVernay’s thesis on the 13th amendment and how it continues to breathe today is thorough and the kind of obvious that embarrasses you for believing otherwise, for imagining better.
There is much more left to be said however; for the shock to ring, DuVernay spares us solutions and raises only decidedly general-facing anger. While we know there are a lot of elected officials and seedy overarching corporations to blame for the institutionalised criminalisation of black people, we’re not given much in the way of acting against them. Perhaps it’s better to separate the debate, rile up in the first instance, uncage in the second; accusations of lecturing find their leverage with those who both know the questions and the answers.
Still, it feels like there’s so much left to undo, and no starting point in sight. We could be better people, we can be better informed, the Americans of 2016 can actively vote against Donald Trump (himself a casual target of this film for typically demanding the death of literally-innocent black men) but after that, what next? The prison system, we suppose, and the company ALEC, for one. And then? Again, perhaps not for 13TH to address.
The almost action-like camerawork, with its lack of single narrator, it’s clear and obvious juxtaposing and vilifying of the ALEC rep, it’s zippy under hour-forty runtime; this is an experience that is intended to grip your instinctive desires, not tease your intellectual wants. No Governor will be impressed by this, no academic will quote it in their upcoming lecture except to disavow it; the point is that the discussion has been brought to the masses in guerrilla form and the information disseminated before the mob can gather their pitchforks.
It’s rough watching, and absolutely essential.