Ava DuVernay’s “The 13th” Exposes America Still Getting Rich From Slavery #LFF2016

13thThe 13th Amendment to the American 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, “

…was passed by Congress on January 31st, 1865, then ratified by the States on December 6th, 1865. It was supposed to formally abolished slavery in the United States of America. Except it didn’t. XIII became weaponised, using the stipulation of,

“… except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted…”

Co-writer/director Ava DuVernay explains how in her new docu-feature ‘The 13th’ which premiered at this year’s London Film Festival.

From a UK perspective, there was a time when everyone looked up to America – the most powerful nation in the world, a global leader, peacekeeper and maker of all things cool. Black British adults, some still reasonably fresh from the new wave of immigration from the Caribbean in the 60s, seemed more in awe of President John F. Kennedy (d. 1963) than Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (d. 1968).

Then, in the late 70s, UK television aired three landmark American mini-series that changed everything for our community: Roots in 1977, “King” in 1978 and “Roots: The Next Generations” in 1979. We learned that America had systematically destroyed the lives of millions of Africans during slavery, into the early to mid 20th century and were still doing so as the latter half approached! Between these TV shows, the subversive comedy-drama M*A*S*H (film 1970, TV show, 1972-1983), over 11 seasons, depicting a mobile army surgical hospital in the 1950-53 Korean war, and the 1985 Paul Hardcastle single ’19’, describing the average age of young men sent to the 1965-73 Vietnam War, America began to look as though it were made of Fool’s Gold (iron pyrite).

Now almost 40 years later, as the #BlackLivesMatter movement gains support on both sides of the Atlantic, and governments scratch their heads to try to stop the despicable cross-border ‘people trafficking’, or ‘modern slavery’, or ‘white slavery’ (despite ignoring the same treatment of Mexicans and other South Americans), DuVernay took up her camera and secretly created this landmark film to educate us with the latest incarnation of slavery in the USA.

The film opens with President Obama – the first sitting president to visit a prison, in 2015. His voice-over states, with barely concealed exasperation, that with only 5% of the world’s population, America incarcerates almost 25% of the worlds known prisoner population. The United States of America – the land of the free! It says so in their National Anthem! 

Thereafter, DuVernay avoids the use of narration. Instead, she uses talking heads, archive footage and imagery, and a political soundtrack featuring largely hip hop, but also the likes of Nina Simone and Leadbelly (music by Jason Moran). But, this is DuVernay. So, the experts’ statements are given extra emphasis with a combination of multi-angle fixed, plus engagingly dynamic, camerawork. The imagery, both stills and in-motion, are used to highlight particular statements or statistics. The music is accompanied by graphics literally spelling out the lyrics, displaying logos and more statistics. This could almost have been a silent film, but for the astonishing statements of the experts and admissions by current and former political figures, which the director managed to record or incorporate from public record.

One of the more important early statements, and what we must understand, is that to slave-owners, slavery is an economic system. For a country built on capitalism, this is a concept that was always going to be difficult to let go. So, they didn’t. There is no truer phrase which applies here than, “Let’s not, and say we did.”

The crime and punishment loophole was basically weaponised quite early on, with mass arrests of African Americans after the Civil War for minor infractions, like loitering and vagrancy, punished with custodial sentences. As unpaid, free labour, the prisoners were then used to rebuild the South and its economy as part of their ‘rehabilitation’ . And, of course, if they got out, they would still be denied the civil liberties of getting a decent job, student loan, food stamps, and they would permanently lose the right to vote!

Angela Davis being filmed by Ava DuVernay for 'The 13th'

Angela Davis being filmed by Ava DuVernay for ‘The 13th’

TBB highly recommends that EVERYONE watch this documentary to find out the significance of the original Birth of A Nation by D.W. Griffith (1915) on the African-American nation – how it inspired mass terrorism; how many lynchings occurred between the post-civil war Reconstruction and World War II; how the more legal segregation (BTW, this IS the same as Apartheid) replaced lynchings; and, once segregation was phased out, how it has all come full circle. DuVernay draws a very definite line between legislative changes, incorporating Reagan’s War on Drugs and Clinton’s police power expansion, which accommodated this heinous practice.

DuVernay piles on the nauseating facts. With the rise in the privatisation of prisons in the 1980s and mostly located in the southern and western United States, they became for-profit. One of these institutions proposed and pushed for the passing of Arizona SB 1070, the US equivalent to our UK SUS law (Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824), which was adopted in 2010. It could be used to increase the supply of African and Latino-American bodies into the prison system. At this point, you’ll want a pen to note down the globally-known companies who use prison labour. That said, I guess sourcing the missile components supplied by prisons will be left to the Ministry of Defence!

Du Vernay also presents us with the gut punch – the significance of poverty, mental health issues and the story of an innocent African-American teen and his run-in with the American criminal justice system. Heartbreaking. She intercuts images of mobs manhandling solitary African-Americans from the 1960s and much, much more recently! She adds statistics specific to the African-American population, and makes some startling revelations.

If this wasn’t enough DuVernay has gathered an indisputably distinguished and knowledgeable collection of voices, all saying the same thing – African American academics, activists and historians such as the political activist, academic scholar, and author Angela Davis; writer-author on race, politics, history, and culture (William) Jelani Cobb, historian and filmmaker Louis Gates Jr.; African-American history scholar Dr. Khalil G. Mohammed; junior United States Democratic Senator (NJ) Cory Booker;  Chair of Pan-African Studies at Cal State LA and co-founder of Black Lives Matter Professor Melina Abdullah and many more.

The power of this film is of gut-clenching intensity because of its simplicity. The experts speak with authority and passion of the incontrovertible truth of the low status of the black population in America. Du Vernay manages to visually present most of the evidence they speak of, and the music adds yet another layer of emotion with a selection that demonstrates generations of political protest songs up to the present day. It didn’t feel like a traditional documentary. The degree of enlightenment is actually reminiscent of the incredible talk Akala gave in 2014 at Fredi Kruga’s inaugural Back 2 Black at BAFTA.

DuVernay ended with the astonishing final statistic from 2014 against a discussion on police brutality and the landmark funeral of Emmet Hill. It is beyond-words disturbing.

 What was perhaps missing was a summary of any reform that might be in progress. But, it is clear that DuVernay intended to present a history aiming to empower African Americans and enlighten the rest of the world in order to add context to the rallying cry of Black Lives Matter and expose the inhumane disadvantages suffered by black Americans.

In the almost-capacity audience in the NFT 2 theatre, which boasts 125 seats, NO-ONE left their seats before the credits finished rolling. When the lights came up, everyone filed out in a contemplative almost-silence.

I think Ms DuVernay made her point.

The 13th screened twice at the BFI London Film Festival on October 6th, then it became available on Netflix the next day on October 7th 2016.

Watch. Now. This is an absolute must-see!

Words by @DescantDeb