***A spoiler free review***
13th Review: “Who Do Black Lives Matter To?”
Released as a Netflix Original documentary in 2016, Ava Duvernay’s film, 13th, is a complex journey through the annals of historical American racism, starting with the banishment of slavery, through to the Civil Rights Movement and ending in the precarious present. You may know Duvernay, from her work on Selma, which was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 2015, or “Queen Sugar”, a 2016 television show on the Oprah Winfrey Network based on the novel series of the same name by Natalie Baszile. If you’re not familiar with her work, 13th is a continuing conversation that Duvernay is facilitating with her work about race in America, and the film is a much watch for people of all color and cultures interested in contributing to the discussion.
Although I do not actively seek out documentaries most of the time, I was curious about this movie for quite a while before I turned it on. As I mentioned in my review of Angela Davis’ book, Freedom is a Constant Struggle, I have recently decided to continue my education on social justice, but this film sat in my Netflix queue for a few months before I had the time and energy to absorb its lessons. 13th isn’t an easy watch, but any discussion of race usually isn’t easy. Duvernay puts together an intimidating amount of researchers, politicians, historians and invested parties in order to explain the connection between the 13th amendment, and the prison systems.
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
-13th Amendment of the Constitution, Section 1
This is not just a film about the prison industrial complex, though. It is about Trayvon Martin and the young black men and women who have been victimized by a system they have no control over. It is about the Black Lives Matter movement and the pain of black mothers who are scared for their children. It is about racism that permeates the criminal justice system, from the streets all the way up to the courts and the corporations which run the prisons. If you’re willing to hear it, this is the story of the struggles of Black America, from slavery to freedom, and everything in between.
After the first time I watched this film over Christmas break, I felt so impressed by the quality of the documentary, I decided to incorporate 13th into my lesson plan for the argument writing class I was scheduled to teach in the Winter. I watched the film a second time with pen and paper in hand, ready to take notes for my students in order to help them better understand the premise that Duvernay has stated for audiences. The third time I watched this movie was from the back of the classroom, as I gauged the faces of my students, none of whom had seen the film before or heard the stories told, but who were prepared to write, read and learn about the topics within it.
Over the past few weeks, my students and I have had numerous conversations about the themes and theories behind Duvernay’s film. Some of them don’t understand the argument–of course racism exists in the system and they should know; this class is made up of students studying to work in criminal justice. Each one a minority who wants to be a cop or a prison guard or to work with the law in some capacity. To them, this film means something different, it is a call to action to be better, to work harder and to be more fair than those who came before them. To others, the film makes them feel defensive. They will only punish those who deserve it, the criminals, the bad seeds in the communities these students will one day serve.
This weekend, I will sit down and read a dozen papers by my students, who are arguing for or against the thesis of Duvernay’s film. I’m excited to see what they have to say, and how they interpret this very intense, important conversation. Most of all, I want to see these young men and women, who will one day vow to protect us, armed with not only guns and a badge, but with education and understanding about the complex communities they serve.
Can I watch it with my kids?
Yes, probably teen and up, though. There are graphic scenes depicting racist acts carried out by white supremacists, so be warned.
Is this film a political statement?
“Ava DuVernay’s 13th is a documentary about how the Thirteenth Amendment led to mass incarceration in the United States, but it’s also a gorgeous, evocative, and maddening exploration of words: of their power, their roots, their permanence. It’s about those who wield those words and those made to kneel by them.”
Short answer, yes. According to my younger sister, this movie tells a truth that every American needs to hear and if you ignore it, you do so willfully.
Where does Duvernay get her information from?
Duvernay utilizes some the the brightest, most intelligent black voices of our time to explain the unrest in the black community in a way that is clear, obvious and heartbreaking. Van Jones, Michelle Alexander, Angela Davis, Cory Booker and Henry Louis Gates Jr. are just some of those who give their insights in this film, along with numerous others. If knowledge is power, than grab up the information in 13th in order to better understand the complex systems we live in and that some, indeed, die for.
xoxo C. Diva