Ava DuVernay has become a strong voice in Hollywood, specifically when it comes to activism. In 2014, she led her Selma cast in wearing "I Can't Breathe" t-shirts at the film's premiere, and she has used her fame and artistic license to make political statements ever since. Be it advocating for diversity in front of and behind the camera on her TV show Queen Sugar to breaking Hollywood barriers as the director of A Wrinkle in Time , DuVernay's activism is a consistent thread throughout her work. And that passionate spirit is front and center in her debut documentary feature, 13th . DuVernay does not appear in the documentary, which uses nterviews with scholars, journalists, and politicians to discuss racism in the American justice system, but her vision is clear. Make no mistake, 13th is activist art, and DuVernay's unflinching critique of American prisons is what makes 13th the must-see documentary of the year.
13th , currently available on Netflix, takes a close examination at the 13th Amendment, which freed the slaves in the United States while also helping to develop an environment and society that criminalized blackness and created mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex. Put in the context of the 2016 election by a stunning third act, 13th examines how race in America has been shaped by the legacy of slavery through one very specific problem. It's impossible to tackle racism in a two-hour film, but that's not DuVernay's mission with 13th. The film has a very simple thesis: that the language in the 13th Amendment, which states that slavery is legal "as a punishment for crime," set up a mass incarceration system that has replaced slavery.
By focusing on the 13th Amendment and the staggering numbers of African American and Latino prisoners in the U.S. and the monetization of imprisonment and justice, DuVernay manages to touch upon many facets of racism in America without casting too broad a net that the film feels vague. Interviews with activists and writers like Angela Davis, Henry Louis Gates, and even Newt Gingrich, presents analysis of American society in relation to mass incarceration, while also alluding to bigger ideological problems in terms of how we think about our identity as Americans.
13th's focus on mass incarceration also allows DuVernay to explore the topic of police violence and put into context the Black Lives Matter movement. Police violence, the documentary suggests, is almost a natural extension of slavery and a consequence of the 13th Amendment. And therein lies the beauty of 13th: it illuminates how easily dismissed factors, like the specific language of the 13th Amendment, can contribute to the oppression of people of color in America.
13th is essential viewing as the 2016 presidential election draws near. With the history of American prisons and the criminalization of the black body laid out in the first two acts of the film, DuVernay presents the two major party candidates, Clinton and Trump, within the context of mass incarceration. And, though the film certainly does not let Clinton off the hook for her infamous "super predator" comments and other incarceration policies she supported, the final act takes a brutal swing at Trump's pro-police, anti-POC rhetoric. In a particularly effective segment, DuVernay puts some of Trump's more violent speeches over old footage of civil rights activists and African Americans being beaten. It's a bold and stunning sequence that could very well influence how you vote this November.
But 13th isn't just essential viewing because of today's political climate. The documentary will live far beyond this election cycle because it questions the American identity. Americans likes to think of their country as a one of freedom and justice, but that's not always the case. Our history of institutionalized oppression, as seen in the American justice system, suggests the exact opposite. It's a tough pill to swallow, made easier by a beautiful film.
So, get your parents' Netflix password, borrow a friend's computer — do whatever you can to watch this documentary. You won't regret it.