Monday, January 02, 2017


Ordinarily, I'd be opening up a new year with a list of my favorite movies from the year before. This time around, though, I only just watched one of the movies that made my list on December 30th. So first, I need to play catch up and share a few thoughts on that.

13th is a documentary from Ava DuVernay, the director of the Oscar-nominated Selma. It presents a case that the early American culture surrounding slavery continues to this day, transformed into modern practices of mass incarceration. The 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States, makes an exception for punishment of a crime. The documentary argues -- quite convincingly -- that this loophole informs a systemically racist depiction of African Americans as criminals.

13th adheres to well-established documentary conventions: talking head interviews, archival news footage, on-screen graphics. But it works to the movie's advantage that its form is familiar, as this leaves nothing between the audience and the case being made.

The documentary carefully illustrates how the policies of Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr, and Clinton most magnified and/or exploited the problem of mass incarceration. Unfortunately, it also paints a bleak picture of what lies ahead with more current footage -- a grim parade of excessive police force. And a montage that juxtaposes a Donald Trump speech with images of Jim Crow era abuse is downright chilling.

There's really just one short section in the middle of the film that I found even slightly less than compelling. It's a sequence that vilifies ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. While this material is as supported by the same "show your work" ethos as the rest of the film, it feels like something of a side trip -- after an initial focus on the for-profit prison system, it becomes more of an argument against the lobbying powers of unchecked capitalism. (Another valid argument, but lacking the tight focus of the rest of the film.)

The film feels particularly dispiriting to watch here in Colorado, given an issue that was on the ballot in the 2016 election. Colorado had an proposal to strike from the state constitution identical language to the U.S. Constitution's 13th amendment: an exception allowing slavery as punishment for a crime. Though hardly even a modest remedy for institutional racism, such an amendment at least felt like an acknowledgement of the problem. Colorado voters failed to pass it.

In short, 13th is not an easy watch. Nor does it offer much in the way of a call to action that would help one feel productive after being rightly enraged. But that makes it no less vital or convincing. I'd rate the documentary an A-, and I strongly recommend watching it. With Netflix having picked it up as one of their original films, all that many of my readers would need to do is make the time.

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