13th, the latest original documentary from Netflix, is a film of great urgency, hurtling across 150 years of American history to highlight the government’s ongoing, systematic attacks on black and brown people.
In 1865, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was passed, outlawing slavery or involuntary servitude ... except as punishment for a crime. The central claim of director Ava DuVernay’s film is that, in the century and a half since then, the government has continually used this loophole against African Americans, keeping them all but in chains and sending them to jails (and, indeed, often to graves) at an alarmingly higher rate than white Americans.
There is plenty of sin to go around here. The film is breathless in its cataloging of social and political evils: The image of black men as animalistic sexual predators popularized by D.W. Griffith’s infamous silent epic The Birth of a Nation and the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan sparked by the film’s success; lynchings of black teenagers for so much as a look or whistle, and often for nothing at all; Nixon’s sly “War on Drugs” effort, in which, as Angela Davis puts it, “crime” began to stand in for “race.”
What takes you aback is that, often, DuVernay and her slew of brilliant interviewees, including Michelle Alexander and Kevin Gannon, don’t even have to do any heavy lifting: their sources spell things out plainly, most startlingly in an audio recording of Reagan and Bush adviser Lee Atwater explaining the “Southern strategy” of getting votes:
“You start out in 1954 by saying ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968, you can’t say ‘nigger’ -- that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff ... a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
This is blood-boiling political filmmaking, a la Peter Davis’s legendary Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds. In a jaw-dropping scene that will surely become a touchstone in terms of editing, Donald Trump’s comments on protesters at his rallies (“In the good ol’ days, this doesn’t happen, because they used to treat them very, very rough” ... “I’d like to punch him in the face” ... “They’d be carried out on a stretcher”) are played over archival footage of civil rights activists being shoved, punched, dragged and beaten.
13th, along with DuVernay’s films I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere, is available on Netflix.