In April 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. penned a letter from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama addressed to a group of clergymen. It read in part “For years now I have heard the word wait… this wait has almost always meant never”. What King was waiting for and what millions of African Americans are still waiting for, is freedom, justice and equality and it is this wait that director Ava DuVernay addresses in her superlative new Netflix documentary 13th.
The title of the movie refers to the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states “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”. The film documents the various ways that the American elite, including members of both government and industry, have colluded to criminalize black America in an effort to use this constitutional loophole, which allows those punished of a crime to be exploited, for their own political and financial gain.
From segregation laws and the war on drugs to mandatory sentencing and the three strikes law, the movie throws punch after punch. Through decades of news footage and photographs, interviews with intellectuals, politicians and activists and startling music and graphics it details the vast web of conspiracies and conspirators, each with one aim – to keep a race of people under their thumb. And when, inevitably, it arrives at the recent string of police related deaths caught on camera, the film throws a gut punch. It is a movie that is often painful and difficult to watch but as one after another cell phone video crossed the screen I could not help but look away. But it challenges us not to look away and seeks to shock us into taking action through protest and at the ballot box to affect change.
If there is something that the movie will be criticized for it will be its obvious political leanings, on display most obviously during its depiction of the current U.S. election, but while the film does make it clear that it views Donald Trump as an enemy of the cause, it also explains that he is just the latest example of a problem, perpetuated over the years by Democrats and Republicans alike, that has plagued America in one form or another from the beginning.
As movies go, 13th is as powerful, thought provoking and incendiary as they come. It is essential filmmaking that demands to be seen and commands that we ask ourselves how much longer do we have to wait.