Ava DuVernay’s new Netflix documentary 13th is a powerful film that details how the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution abolished slavery and simultaneously established the pretext for the criminalization and mass incarceration of black and brown Americans. The slavery “loophole” was contained in the phrase “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” It has provided through the decades a harshly unforgiving exit ramp to social death for countless incarcerated black people. The phrase has been used as a way to essentially reinvent slavery with each generation, as this film shows with clear-eyed, surgical precision.
The film’s narrative (written by DuVernay and Spencer Averick) is delivered on the strength of astonishingly clear interviews that trace these perverse historical developments with clarity and a straightforward didacticism. I squirmed in my seat, bear hugged myself, and moaned out loud. DuVernay conveyed the interviews and the deeply researched archival footage with a relentlessly undramatic, emotional pitch, and that was one of the reasons for my visceral reaction. There’s no punchline here; no emotional apex to jolt you from your chair. The 150-year history of the methodical “making” of black criminality is depicted and explained with such a deadpan delivery, the film’s shocking truth seems almost “everyday,” mundane even. It’s an amazing filmic strategy.
13thwasn’t designed to inflame, nor entertain. Rather, it deeply informs by sidestepping the tone and immediacy of memes, tweets, and cable news soundbites. As the historically situated, horrific facts roll out and the seamless ways that systemic oppression reconstitutes itself become clear, viewers can see how it’s not about moments of “racial unrest” but more about how black criminalization is a well-oiled and remarkably durable project. It’ll be impossible to replace the lingering effect of this work with the next set of outrages that come across your Facebook timeline. You won’t shake it off easily. Even the statistical data of mass incarceration is handled directly but through a creative presentation of graphics.
DuVernay’s use of Jason Moran’s original score is simply remarkable. The musical “sculpting” of her films is something to which she’s very committed, according to Moran. Aspects of the score constitute a digitized, atmospheric musical address that feels like it’s swelling and contracting. It provides a counterpoint to the emotional contour of the film. This cross relationship makes one aware of one’s breathing. When Moran’s idiosyncratic piano voice enters the fray, it adds emotive variety and also lends an episodic texture to the seamlessness of the historical narrative. It’s a release, too. The music is quietly beautiful, which is another element countering the unadorned cruelty of the criminal (in)justice system. Moran, who also scored DuVernay’s Selma, has developed a filmic subdivision of his inestimable art that functions in 13th much like the nineteenth-century romantic symphony did during the age of classic Hollywood cinema. Through assimilating identification—a scoring strategy that brings all viewers (no matter what their background) into a “universal” relationship with the narrative, Moran’s music allows us all (hopefully) to be appropriately appalled by what we learn.
This musical address, however, is disrupted by a Nina Simone cut and rap music recordings possessing lyrics that artfully and forcibly gave voice to the targets of oppression through mass mediation. We also experience the gripping artistry of music from Alicia Hall Moran’s recording Heavy Blue and Lawrence Brownlee, one of today’s standard bearers of the spirituals’ “soul Bel Canto” tradition. This “compiled” aspect of the film’s soundtrack (pre-existing recordings distinct from the original score) illuminates how the victims of mass incarceration were all too aware of their statistical chances against the system. If you’re a fan of rap music, its import here will hit you in the gut. The affiliating identifications (the dragging of one’s previous experience with a song into the film individual’s viewing experience) that these songs create is powerful, artful and strategic.
DuVernay, stated in an interview that “we’re giving you 150 years of oppression in 100 minutes.” We’re getting that and much more. Her team has given us an unflinching look at the odds facing generation after generation of Americans who by the fate of their birth remain in the crosshairs of a system elaborately designed to keep them surveilled, controlled, and fueling an economy that keeps those in power profiting from human subjugation. She’s told a hard truth through a stunning piece of art. You can’t and shouldn’t turn away.