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October 14, 2016

13TH (2016)
Director: Ava DuVernay

angeladavis-13th.jpeg (308×173)

Synopsis: A documentary tracing the history of black oppression in the US from the symbolic ending of slavery with the 13th amendment to the American Constitution to more recent incarnations: Jim Crow and Mass Incarceration.

Review: This literate, highly cerebral, dissection of the history of black oppression in the US since the ending of slavery (but focusing more on insidious developments in black vs. state relations since the Civil Rights movement) may not offer many concessions to the casual viewer, but in its unhurried, dignified tones it mirrors the humane, vital message of the story itself.

Identifying a caveat in the 13th amendment to the American Constitution – which was supposed to grant emancipation to America’s black population, bar the notion that criminals are immune from exercising that liberty – DuVernay explores the prescience of this seemingly incidental clause to articulately explore how a legacy of black oppression morphed from outright state-sponsored suppression to a more economic, social and legislative campaign (namely the “War on Drugs” and Mass Incarceration).

Although a reasonably straightforward documentary in terms of its rhetorical artillery (a range of articulate, well-informed speakers on the subject, archive footage, and plenty of ingenious graphics), the film transcends its plainness with the sheer force of its intelligence and content. Probably most striking is not the more colourful first half of the documentary which sketches in a brief resumé of black history post-1865, but more its denser second half, where the sinister privatisation of the criminal justice system is evidenced – particularly the deeply concerning power of SPECTRE-like lobbying body, ALEC, which has played a significant role in US law-making through having numerous corporations as its sponsors (including privatised correctional facility firms).

Chiming neatly with present political issues (the upcoming presidential election and the Black Lives Matter movement), DuVernay succeeds especially in calling out the vicious, reductive rhetoric Donald Trump is currently using as an ominous warning on a potentially new phase of state-sponsored ‘attacks’ on black communities. (October 2016)

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