The synopsis of 13TH almost implied a filmed immersion into correctional facilities, but Ava DuVernay, thank goodness, isn’t interested in a small cast of subjective case files; what we have here is an honest-to-god portfolio of horror and insanity, an exceedingly well-structured talking-head essay on the (black) body politic, in which the cast is no less than America.
13TH shows off two important qualities: fantastic subjects, and a judicious, intelligent structure. DuVernay, and cowriter/editor Spencer Averick, deliver a virtually note-perfect essay in this regard, and as with their wonderful Selma (and the purely fictional Middle of Nowhere) construct something that apparently clefts to simple fact, but ultimately gives over to a multitude of emotions. There is little light in the darkness by the end of this film; unlike many documentaries on sad subjects, the idea of a struggle for change is here unpacked as an historical booby-trap. The highly original slavery-prison argument impresses and depresses equally.
This is perhaps where the film doesn’t go quite far enough, at least in its form (its content is vital activism writ large): the objectivity holds back some of the righteous, apoplectic bemusement that a more experimental documentarian might have brought. DuVernay stays resolutely behind the camera, which actually limits her considerable voice to the realm of mere rhetoric. But when the only criticism of a documentary is that its highly intelligent director isn’t herself appearing onscreen, you’ve got a damn good documentary – which stays with you for days.
We, and our bodies, are all to some extent owned and operated as objects of capital; the disproportion with which darker bodies are exploited is examined, unpacked and blasted in this simmering polemic. DuVernay’s calm approach is both sensitive blessing and a slight frustration, though a late Donald Trump sequence boasts masterful flourish.
DIRECTOR: Ava DuVernay
WRITERS: Ava DuVernay, Spencer Averick
SYNOPSIS: Ava DuVernay explores issues of mass incarceration in the US, particularly the disproportionate numbers – and treatment – of black citizens.