Sneak Peek: 13th
Available to stream on Netflix, and available in select theaters Friday, October 7.
The title of Ava DuVernay’s extraordinary and galvanizing documentary refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which reads, “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.” The progression from that second qualifying clause to the horrors of mass criminalization and the sprawling American prison industry is laid out by DuVernay with bracing lucidity. With a potent mixture of archival footage and testimony from a dazzling array of activists, politicians, historians, and formerly incarcerated women and men, DuVernay creates a work of grand historical synthesis.
Directed by Ava DuVernay
Written by Ava DuVernay & Spencer Averick
Runtime: 100 minutes
This transcript has been lightly edited:
The Referee: Hey-hey-hey! Hey!
The Critic: Look, I think the Ref is going to need some support, some help here.
Ref: You know what? I’m going to need everything that I’ve got. Now, listen. Listeners, we have a special report. This is considered a special Sneak Peek, because we don’t usually review documentaries here on Why Watch That. This one, we had to. It is called “13th,” and we reviewed it at the New York Film Festival at its world premiere — at the press screening. And, it is directed by one of the most prolific directors that’s currently on the screen, in the screen, behind the screen. (laughter) And, it’s none other than Ava DuVernay — written, also put together by her and her sister, as well as a whole army of people she uses — a regular editor, as well — for most of her projects. Now, the reason why I’m fumbling around a little bit is because the “13th” documentary is about the 13th Amendment. But, it’s specifically about a loophole within the amendment. And, this is coming out this week, October 7, on Netflix. And, the Critic is going to tell you about this loophole and what Ava DuVernay did with it. And, we’re just going to share; we’re going to call this a sharing.
Critic: Yes. So, the 13th Amendment, if you don’t know, is what abolished slavery in the United States, obviously. But, that loophole is: except for criminals. So, if you’ve committed a crime, you can be a slave of the state. And, what happens is: Ava DuVernay traces the history of the effects of that — the ripple effects — and, even before then, in slavery; so, moving through to the present time, essentially. But, she focuses on certain points in history that have turned being incarcerated into a business — into a booming business, I should say.
Critic: And has, of course, disproportionately affected people of color. Specifically, in this film, it’s mostly about black people —
Ref: Black males.
Critic: Black males, yes. They do mention brown people, as well. So, what we get is: Of course, it’s a documentary. She pulls in lots of experts. A lot of them are people who are icons or who are fighting against this or writing about it to shine a light on the problems. So, you get people such as Van Jones. You get —
Ref: I mean, you get Angela Davis.
Critic: Angela Davis, yeah.
Ref: Ha, ha! Hello! Charlie Rangel.
Critic: Yes. (laughs)
Ref: Yes. Yes. Charles, I’m sorry; the former senator —
Critic: Representative —
Ref: Representative, sorry, representative.
Critic: From Harlem, that’s right.
Ref: That’s right.
Critic: And, look, the Angela Davis stuff: You’ve got to see some of that. So, she [DuVernay] talks to them. She also, though, talks to some people who may not be as sympathetic to the cause. We do get Grover Norquist. We do get a representative of ALEC; if you don’t know what that is, you can look it up or watch the documentary — even better — and you’ll find out. We even get Newt Gingrich! —
Ref: (laughing) Yes, which was, like, “What?!”
Critic: — who says some things that might surprise you.
Critic: What she also does is focus on certain presidents, starting with Nixon in the 70s, where we got the “Law and Order” dog-whistle beginning, going into Reagan, going into Bill Clinton and the role that he played, and bringing in Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Critic: So, we also see an evolution — or not! — for the two of them throughout the movie.
Critic: So, she’s doing a lot of different things. But, again, the focus is on that loophole in the 13th Amendment. So, she’s not going to give you everything; she’s not going to give you all of the context. It’s, of course, one documentary with one focus. But, I will say this: By the end of it, everything that led up to the end makes sense. Like, it really crystallizes in the ending. And, for me, I said, “OK. You got me. You really got me at the end, Ava.”
Ref: She also beautifully tells us a story via numbers. And, you know, most documentaries, they’ll have some important statistics. But, the way she tells the growing and increasing amount of incarceration among people of color, especially black men, is astounding! when you see the graphs that she has, as well as each decade or each period of history — how that number increases, doubles even. And, by the end of it, it’s almost a tripling, quadrupling effect. And, I thought that was very effective. Also, her use of music and her use of hip-hop to tell the story of incarceration; and, excuse me if this offends you, but the word “n****r” or the word “negro” being associated with criminal. She does a wonderful job of making that association clear. What I will say is this: There’s one particular story, for me, that really solidified it. Everything was working. It was beautifully directed. All the right questions were asked. It was, just, moving along. And, I’d taught African-American Studies and was an African-American Studies minor in college. And so, most of the things that she was talking about, especially the early things: You know, I was like, “Oh. Yes, yes, yes.” And, you nod and agree. But, there’s one particular story — that I won’t give away. I won’t say who he is, ‘cause it could be anybody.
Ref: This young man was assaulted, basically, by the cops. And, he was pinned for doing something he didn’t do and was going through that process on the way up to trial — whatever process that is. If you’ve watched “The Night Of,” you know what I’m talking about.
Ref: And, instead of, like most people who are starting that process — instead of just taking the plea bargain and just saying, “You know what? I did it. Fine.” Because, as he goes through the process, the years of him being in prison increase — the possibility of that.
Ref: So, most people take the plea. This young man didn’t take the plea, spent three years in prison, and then you see the result! of that. She shows you and displays the result of that. I mean, there wasn’t a dry eye in the whole theater.
Ref: Sniffling; I was weeping; I was a mess.
Ref: And, it really, for me — it was a personal manifestation of this entire documentary, of what a system that is already rigged can do to an innocent person’s life, especially a young man of African descent. Already, you’ve got me, Ava. You’ve got me.
Critic: Yeah, and just to underscore, again, what you said, Ref: He was in prison; he was at Rikers, awaiting trial for three years — innocent! We know this. So, you’ll see that; you’ll know exactly what the Ref is talking about with that. And, everyone, we do want to note that we have her [DuVernay’s] press conference from the New York Film Festival on our site.
Ref: Listen to it.
Critic: Listen to it. It’s in the Events section, where she talks about the Dignified Man. Remember that, Ref?
Ref: Yes, I do.
Critic: I’ve seen that footage before, but the way she used it was just devastating. It, just, really was. Also, I do want to call attention to, as you mentioned the use of music and the graphics: She, of course, brings in archival footage; she brings in animations. It’s, just, using all of the great techniques of documentarians, here, to send a message that is timeless. OK?
Critic: It’s timely and timeless.
Ref: And, the way it’s timely now is that there’s a protest in prisons right now — that’s not getting a lot of media play — that is challenging the way we handle prisoners; and it’s by the prisoners.
Ref: And, so, it’s just one of those things where she is making a social, a political, a personal stand against a systematic disrespect —
Ref: — of people of color that you really do have to pay attention to. Now, we don’t want to go on and on and preach. Here’s the thing: It’s on Netflix. It is readily available to you to watch, to debate, to talk about, to discredit, to like, whatever you want to do. It’s on Netflix, this Friday. You can check it out. I highly recommend it, highly recommend it. If you don’t have Netflix, you can get a trial for a month. And, to me — I know you; I know you, listener. You’ve been saving that trial. (laughter) Go ahead and use it. You’ve got a whole bunch of other wonderful things on Netflix.
Critic: Yeah, I think it will be released in a few theaters. So —
Ref: Yes, it will. Now, wait a minute. We can’t forget about “The Birth of a Nation.”
Ref: Remember? Yeah.
Critic: Now — and let’s be clear: So, Ava DuVernay pulls this into the movie, of course, going through that timeline. And, we are talking about “The Birth of a Nation” from —
Ref: 1915. Yeah.
Critic: — directed by D.W. Griffith. So, the thing is, everybody: Also, on October 7, “The Birth of a Nation,” directed by Nate Parker, is coming out. And, he uses that movie to reclaim what was done in 1915. So, it’s interesting — these two movies — now, Ref: “13th,” “The Birth of a Nation” — the 2016 version (click here for our review) — having their own say in what started over 100 years ago, now. Oh, my goodness. Can you believe that? Wow.
Ref: Yeah, you can actually catch “The Birth of a Nation (1915)” on Amazon Prime as of [this episode’s] release if you want to watch it to see what she’s talking about. I recommend that you do. You don’t need to watch it over and over again, but just for a reference of what really sparked a massive agreement among the nation at that time as to their ideas of African-Americans at that time.
Critic: Yeah. It’s not an easy watch, but none of this stuff is, everybody. And, just, again, to say: You don’t have to agree with all of this stuff, but it’s good to know.
Critic: And, it’s good to have a discussion. And that’s what “13th” is really about. So, you know, I won’t even get into “The Birth of a Nation”  because —
Ref: Nope. Nope, nope, nope. (laughter) Let’s focus on this.
Ref: What about this?
Ref: Again, October 7, you can check out “13th.” It is a Why Watch That recommend. Please, also check out her [DuVernay’s] Q&A on our site, under the Events category, as the Critic said. You will not be sorry. In fact, you will be educated and enlightened.