One of the biggest conflicts surrounding the 2016 presidential elections has been the unsettling and rampant nature of racism. With one candidate suggesting banning Muslims and "rapist" Mexicans as well as fixing the hellish slums of black communities; the idea of America being a nation of progress becomes hard to believe. As the election gets closer, it feels right to become introspective about why this remains such an issue and how the culture seeks to face any change. Director Ava Duvernay jumps into the documentary world with the vital 13th: a documentary chronicling how despite the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, it ended up creating a new form of racial bias. It may be specifically about the prison system, but in just 100 minutes, Duvernay's dissection creates a strong indication of the bigger racial problems in America.
The documentary begins by recognizing how institutionalized American racism is. This is represented in the first feature length film: director D.W. Griffiths' The Birth of a Nation. It is a film where the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) are deemed the heroes for lynching a black man who raped a white woman. While the unsettling moment may seem dated and offensive, Duvernay makes the case that the 1915 film is not too far off from the politics that would develop over the next century, specifically in the second half starting with President Richard M. Nixon and his staff, who create counter intuitive laws to "solve crime" by replacing the idea of slavery with a word that flashes on screen repeatedly throughout the film: Criminal.
The facts play out in haunting detail as the decades roll on, introducing new laws by Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. There are news clips and advertisements spliced in to show how the media turned the non-white population into a threat through enhanced criminalization over minor drug charges and forcing people to take plea bargains in fear of a mandatory sentencing. There becomes a disconnect between the politicians and the non-white members of society, causing a haunting sense of presumed good behavior ruining the lives of communities. The decades of people incarcerated rise from a couple hundred thousand in the mid-70's to a little over two million in recent years. The statistic is that one in three black men will be in jail in their lifetime.
13th focuses on the fear that this causes for both sides of the spectrum. The government accidentally spreads fear, even labeling black youths as "Super Predators" while black families are forced to worry that their lives are in constant jeopardy from the law enforcement they presumed would protect them. It is so ingrained in the culture that Duvernay's transitional soundtrack - made up of predominantly rap songs discussing incarceration - shows just how conscious entertainment is of this problem. The songs are defiant, trying to find identity while faced with reputation altering events that are sometimes bogus. The tragedy is that by the end of the documentary as the 1970's turn into the 2010's, there's still that unfortunate judgment that may be in some respects better, but is fueled by a nostalgic sense of racism.
Both of the major political party candidates in the 2016 election have supporting roles in this documentary. Through archival footage, both are seen giving sometimes damning speeches about America's racial problem. Even in the case of Hillary Clinton, her "Super Predators" comments in the early 90's is paralleled with more modern and not so progressive thoughts on the issues. Meanwhile, Duvernay's shining achievement in 13th comes when she juxtaposes Donald Trump alongside footage of brutality towards blacks, talking sympathetically about how much better the good old days used to be when things were "efficient" and protesters were "carried out on a stretcher." Without showing bias towards either major party, Duvernay manages to let their own words dictate their deeper ideals and more specifically how it reflects America's evolution and beliefs of race relations.
13th is vital to the election because it discusses an issue that has largely been prominent in the news and other media for quite a few years now, especially with the rise of social media and camera phones. Figures like Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin are turned into martyrs for the Black Lives Matter movement. Duvernay manages to fuse the upsetting footage alongside informative coverage of modern events, including detailed analysis from comedy shows like Last Week Tonight and The Daily Show. In fact, there's portions of 13th that are only months old, suggesting that things won't get much better until Duvernay and her group of intelligible talking heads can get the audience watching this on Netflix to understand what is wrong and make a difference.
13th may be a little stylish and one-sided, but Duvernay's case is clear. With coherent discussion points and effective cinematic technique, she makes the perfect case for how the prison system impacts America's beliefs on racism. While there's some optimism scattered throughout, the documentary is largely damning of many presidents who could be seen as reputable. As the election approaches (exactly a month after this was released), it does feel important to understand the racial divide in America and why this election has seemed so racially charged in general. It isn't just about the prison system. It's about America's need for a better sense of humanism no matter who you are.