Written by Sooz Kempner


Review: 13th

Ava DuVernay’s documentary looks at the history of racial inequality in the United States. It made uncomfortable watching for Sooz Kempner.

With the openly racist, misogynist and just-about-every-other ‘ist’ Donald J Trump inexplicably rich in supporters less than a month before the US election, it’s shockingly obvious just how far we are from making racism history. Netflix’s new documentary 13th covers 150 years of how America’s black population has been treated and, spoiler alert, it isn’t well.

Ava DuVernay is best known for Selma, her 2014 film about Martin Luther King Jr and the Selma to Montgomery march, a pivotal event in the black rights movement. I, being an ignorant dumb-dumb, had never heard of this march and went into the film believing Selma was the name of Martin Luther King Jr’s wife.

Ava DuVernay photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Ava DuVernay photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Such is DuVernay’s skill as a director that, cliched as it is, history was genuinely brought to life. She took Selma from solid biopic to stirring, timely drama and, in my opinion, was massively overlooked for a Best Director nomination at this year’s Oscars. Her handling of Selma makes her the perfect choice for 13th, Netflix’s latest original documentary, a feature-length look at the 13th Amendment, the 1865 abolition of slavery.

The film’s subject matter is tough, visceral and incredibly frank but never seems gratuitous. It’s hard but vital viewing. It wasn’t that I had never heard of Jim Crow (the set of laws that, post-slavery, prevented black Americans from anything from voting to sitting at the front of the bus) or that I didn’t know Malcolm X was assassinated, it’s just that 13th puts the information in front of you with succinct honesty.

There’s no need for sensationalism; the footage, at times graphic, speaks for itself and the statistics on the rise in America’s prison population since 1980 need no fireworks. The cold hard facts will shock you.

I’m amazed at what DuVernay has achieved in 13th. Cramming so much content into less than two hours is astounding. This is a documentary with no fat on it. Not a second has been wasted. Though we are taken back and forth in history, the narrative of the piece is clear and concise.

It’s not often remarked upon in documentaries but the chosen talking heads are beautifully shot. To call it beautiful filmmaking seems wrong when footage of Trump rallies and police shootings make up hefty portions of 13th’s running time, but I fail to find another word for it. This is beautiful filmmaking. The subject matter speaks for itself but DuVernay, as with Selma, lifts it to something altogether more powerful. You cannot turn away.

It’s a myth that we are living in a post-racial society. Anybody who still peddles that myth should surely be silenced by the rise of the alt-right in the past couple of years. Prior to watching 13th I was of the opinion that we’d come far since 1865. Not far enough, obviously, but a long way. 13th makes it clear that slavery has barely been abolished, it’s merely been softened, renamed and rebranded. My first thought as the credits rolled was why aren’t black people just punching white people in the face, constantly? I’d totally see their point.

The film is a bleak watch but it’s not without hope and it’s incredibly important. It works brilliantly as a companion piece to this year’s OJ: Made in America, an eight-hour documentary on the life of OJ Simpson running parallel with America’s black rights movement. I urge you all to take a deep breath and go for it. And if DuVernay doesn’t scoop an Oscar in 2017 I’ll put a curse on the Academy.


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Written by Sooz Kempner

Funny Women Variety Award Winner 2012. ASDA Kate Bush.