Ava DuVernay's '13th' Is a Devastating Look at America's Long History of Criminal Injustice

The difficulty of making a documentary about the failings of the American criminal justice system is that it is a story without conclusion, with no foreseeable end in sight. That sad truth was driven home by filmmaker Ava DuVernay when discussing the September police killings of two African-American men, Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott.

"When the recent shootings and video came... I just cried, feeling, Oh no, they're not in the piece," DuVernay told the New York Daily News, lamenting that her new film closes without mention of Crutcher or Scott, who were fatally shot after she locked picture. "Which is a completely irrational, emotional, sad reaction, but I'll never be able to get everyone in the movie because it's an ongoing problem.”

DuVernay’s documentary 13th, which premieres on Netflix and in theaters October 7, is named for the constitutional amendment that ended slavery, yet provided for its continuation in all but name. Over the course of 95 minutes, DuVernay navigates America’s history of racialized injustice, moving at a clip through slavery, black codes, Birth of a Nation, Jim Crow, the war on drugs, and viral police violence against African Americans. With each chapter, the film reveals how the black incarceration epidemic is the natural and intended outcome of calculated political strategy, capitalist greed and thoroughly American racism.

The topic of U.S. criminal injustice is always relevant, but the film’s timeliness is heightened by its release in this historic moment. Black Lives Matter and a new generation of activists are refighting battles many have already given their lives for. Amid calls for prison reform, profiteers are looking at new ways to monetize and privatize all aspects of the “corrections” space. Even with video proof in constant rotation on our screens, white supremacy continues to elevate the myth of black pathology and criminality.

As DuVernay, in conversation with the Daily Beast, has noted, “it [is] not one thing, not one party, not one president” who bears blame for the U.S. system of over-incarceration. Our current election involves two competitors who have each contributed to the rise of mass incarceration. In archival footage, DuVernay recalls Hillary Clinton’s 1990s promotion of the racist superpredator myth, as well as her husband’s tough-on-crime posturing that helped the prison population increase exponentially. The film also looks back to 1989, when Donald Trump took out a full-page ad calling for the execution of the Central Park 5, who have since been proven not guilty. Trump’s current rally rhetoric, played over images of white terror against blacks during the civil rights movement, is a look at ugly American truths, spoken loudly.

"It’s vital to have [Trump] in there, because he's taken this country to a place that is going to be long-studied and have repercussions past this moment, regardless if he's president or not," DuVernay reportedly told press at the documentary’s New York Film Festival world premiere.

Though the facts DuVernay relays more than make the case, she’s aided by an array of scholars, thinkers, politicians and activists. The list of those who add context to the film’s storytelling includes Angela Davis, Henry Louis Gates, Van Jones, Cory Booker, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Bryan Stevenson, Jelani Cobb and Newt Gingrich. The film also features Michelle Alexander, whose book The New Jim Crow might be considered the textual predecessor of this necessary film.

"It's deeply embedded in the fabric of America,” DuVernay, whose 2015 film Selma was critically hailed and nominated for two Academy Awards, told CNN of the racism that pervades America’s justice system. “The first step to combat it is to know that it exists. That's my hope with the 13th. Not that it produces some legislation or instigates some kind of protest, but that it allows people to have a revolution within about what we think about this issue and be forward thinking about how we approach it from now on."

13th is now on Netflix and in theaters. Check out the trailer, below

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