Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, February 16, 2017

OSCARS 2017: 13th (2016)

Of this year's Best Documentary nominations, three of them deal with race in one way or another. This is clearly a topic that's been on people's mind. You don't need me to tell you that. We have a racist in the White House, whose top adviser is a literal Neo-Nazi. Things are fucked up. “13th,” from director Ava DuVernay of “Selma,” carefully lays out the case that shit is very fucked up and has been for a very long time. Beginning by pointing out a certain by-law in the 13th Amendment – that prisoners loose their rights as citizens – the film extrapolates from that the different ways American society has conspired to imprison, dehumanize, and persecute the black community.

From the moment slavery was outlawed, black men were persecuted for petty crimes, locked up, and used as free labor. This essentially filled the void the end of slavery left in the Southern economy. “13th” studies the various schemes cooked up to make the imprisonment of black individuals easier. First, black men were depicted as barely human savages prone to rape white women, as in “The Birth of a Nation.” A different method arose in the 1960s, when Richard Nixon began his war on drugs to persecute his political enemies. Which, it must be said, explicitly included the civil rights movement. Ronald Reagan increased this method in the eighties, with laws that more severely punished users of crack cocaine. Which, you might realized, was a drug far more prominent in inner city neighbors with high racial minority population. (It's obvious that DuVernay has no qualms about voicing her displeasure with the Republican party but the Clintons don't get off easily either.)

When focused on exposing the exact details of how white society has been build to persecute racial minorities, “13th” is a compelling documentary. Midway though the film, the focus turns towards prison reform. The topics are directly related, by the obvious and staggering statistic that one in five black men are convicts. As this section of the film goes on and on, it does feel like the point has meandered slightly. Once the film starts to get into the prison industry complex, you wonder if the really fucked-up intricacies of the American prison system didn't deserve its own documentary, outside the context of black persecution in the U.S.

Then again, the two topics are irreversibly intertwined. “13th” makes the compelling point that certain aspects of American society are designed to paint black men as criminals, as prisoners. Once the film comes around to the topic of black protest in the modern age, it finds itself again. The ugly truth concerning Tryvon Martin, Ferguson, Eric Gardner, and Kalif Browder are presented. An especially chilling sequence shows a montage of videos of black men attacked and sometimes killed by police officers. Inevitably, the big orange shithead in the White House comes up. Another startling sequence contrasts President Trump's thoughts on protesters with vintage footage of black protesters being beaten and attacked.

“Issues docs” are tricky to write about for me, sometimes. More then once, I've found myself agreeing with a documentary's point but being disappointed with how it presents itself cinematically. I'm a film reviewer, not a sociologist. That's where my brain is. “13th” does pretty well as a piece of cinema. It's very well edited, as the images, newsreels, vintage film and modern cell phone videos are integrated in order to make the biggest impact. An especially nice device involves pertinent song lyrics appearing on screen, easily the most effective of the on-screen graphics. “13th” could've just been a series of talking head interviews but DuVernay is good at mixing up the experience.

Before you watch this movie, get ready to be pissed off. You should be pissed off. That's exactly the point. The film has no easy answers. The experts interviewed admit that this is a problem that will never go away, that it is unavoidably wrapped up in American culture. Which makes “13th” a call to awareness, to expose the brutal machinations of the system, its roots and history. As a piece of film making, I wish it was a little better paced. As a piece of activism, it's enormously important. [7/10]

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