The task of educating people without boring them is arduous, so much so that many people feel it’s futile. With movies, people would rather watch an entertaining, fictitious story as escapism than spend 100 minutes being exposed to a societal problem in a documentary. Balancing the roles of entertainment and education is the most challenging aspect of a documentary, one that weakens potentially impactful stories. Ava DuVernay’s “13th” strikes this balance and rarely tips over to one side of the scale.
Ava DuVernay (“Selma”), the first Black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe in direction, exposes the racism and corruption behind American incarceration in “13th” through interviews with activists, politicians (both Democrat and Republican) and historians. It points to everything from D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” to current racial tension in order to juxtapose the 13th Amendment (the abolishment of slavery) with today’s justice system. DuVernay successfully critiques the policies of both political parties, while remaining focused on the issues.
“13th” creates its argument through both emotional and indisputable policy-based evidence. For the amount of information that is packed into the 100 minutes, it never feels like too much; DuVernay paces the documentary at a steady level that allows for optimal information retention. Rather than spending 100 minutes focusing on the inner workings of incarceration, “13th” mostly recounts the reasons why it is so corrupt today. Although some of the information will not be groundbreaking to socially aware viewers, aligning the historical facts and policies together forms a product greater than the sum of its parts. By doing so, the viewer gains a well-rounded understanding of the problem and allows for a more thorough analysis. Truthfully, stepping back from a problem and looking at why it exists allows for the best solutions. Viewers not only learn about imprisonment, but slavery, the war on drugs and racist rhetorical devices. Nothing in the documentary feels like filler, tying everything together into one well-constructed piece.
Stylistically, “13th” doesn’t try to be flashy or grip the viewer with fast-paced montages or intense music. It occasionally diverts from its emotional narrative with songs and infographics, though this is more than just a much-needed chance for the viewer to catch their breath amid everything. The horrific images and clips featured, including video evidence of police brutality and lynchings, are heartbreaking but necessary storytelling elements that show the dehumanization that justifies racist rhetoric and policy still today.
“13th” should not only be for those interested in social justice issues or policy, but especially for those sheltered from any knowledge of systemic racism in America. “13th” refrains from jargon and stays accessible for anyone with any various amount of knowledge about these issues. Whereas DuVernay’s “Selma” received criticism for negatively portraying Lyndon B. Johnson, “13th” gives an honest summation of all the political events taken place from the ’70s to today.
Ava DuVernay is one of the most important voices working in Hollywood today. “13th” only adds to her current winning streak, as she fearlessly expresses her voice as a woman of color in a white-male dominated industry. In today’s turbulent social climate, her voice is needed to bring awareness to the struggles African Americans have suffered from since the beginning of American history.