DENNIS SCHWARTZ Movie Reviews

13TH (director: Ava DuVernay; screenwriter: Spencer Averick; cinematographer: Kira Kelly/Hans Charles; editor: Spencer Averick; music: Jason Moran; cast: Angela DavisCorey Booker, Van Jones, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Michelle Alexander, Charles B. Rangel, Deborah Peterson Small, Newt Gingrich; Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Howard Barish/ Spencer Averick; Neflix; 2016)


"It's a lively film that demands answers about what we mean when we say we want "law and Order"."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The title refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution – enacted on Jan. 31, 1865 – which banned slavery everywhere but in prisons. The provocative accusatory documentary directed with moral fortitude by Ava DuVernay ("Selma"/"I Will Follow") and written with bravado by Spencer Averick, provides a vibrant but at times darkly speculative history lesson on the plight of African-Americans. It also offers an indictment against the United States for having the highest rate of incarceration in the world ("in 1972, the U.S. prison population was 200,000, and now it's 2.3 million; black men make up 6.5 percent of the U.S. population, but 40.2 percent of the prison population"). It lets us know the justice system favors those with money, who can afford the best lawyers and acts against the blacks because they mostly can't afford to get proper representation.

Celebrities, historians, activists, former prisoners, academics and politicians tell their version of black history, with nothing new here but a lucid reiteration of how the end of slavery gave way to the Jim Crow south, the KKK and black chain gangs. When D.W. Griffith's arty silent The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915, it struck a chord with a large sampling of white people as it revitalized and romanticized the KKK and confirmed white fears of the black man as a rapist of their women.

The documentary forges ahead to modern times with alacrity to include LBJ's voting rights bill of 1965 as a positive step in civil rights but not an end to systemic racism. It then tells how Nixon's southern strategy was used to gain white votes by using his fight against crime as a code word that blacks are largely criminals who need to be punished. President Reagan upped the ante in the fight against crime by carrying out a real War on Drugs that arrested many blacks; while President Clinton's 1994 crime bill increased the funding for prisons and enforced mandatory long sentences. Clinton's crime bill was a failure, that even he admitted while on the campaign trail for Hillary.

DuVernay, an activist filmmaker,  wants us to believe slavery is an institution that won’t go away because the country's racism has become more subtle and is linked to the inequality in our justice system. Some of the observations are spot on, but some are too simplistic to be swallowed whole without further research and debate. But it's a lively film that demands answers about what we mean when we say we want "law and order." In an homage to the Black Lives Matter movement, it concludes with graphic videos of various black men being shot by police under questionable circumstances. But it doesn't show footage of some of their more violent members urging cops to be targeted.

REVIEWED ON 12/10/2016       GRADE: B-

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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