To a large extent, and whether we tend to like it or not, documentaries are all about constructing an argument. They are about putting together the pieces of a story in such a way so as to create the strongest, most unassailable impression, possible – it isn’t enough to believe something, and it isn’t enough to be right, you have to convince your audience.
Things are going to be left out of a documentary, they have to be. Even a two hour documentary about one person making pancakes in their own home would leave something out. Documentaries live and die based upon what’s included, what’s avoided, and how the included information is presented. Additionally, what’s included must go beyond simply the elements that build the director’s case, they have to appropriately delve into why the other side is wrong.
It takes an incredible amount of knowledge and research and thought to put together a good documentary. It has to hit an emotional resonance as well an intellectual one – something like “Blackfish” excels at the former but not at the latter due to its monolithic and obvious one-sidedness.
Then there is Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” which just opened the 54th New York Film Festival. The documentary is beautifully constructed and brilliantly argued; it affects the viewer on both emotional and intellectual levels, and consequently it is a must-see film.
As the documentary states, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution reads, “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.” The amendment then abolishes slavery “except as a punishment for crime,” and that bit, the argument goes, has affected the next 150 years of this nation’s history.
DuVernay proceeds to take the viewer through that history, showing the way our nation has gone about mass incarceration, has systematically imprisoned more African Americans than whites, and has used prisoners as slave labor. “13th” takes a multi-pronged approach, offering up things such as a look at the corporations who own prisons who have had laws passed so as to boost the prison population, the government which has used phrases like “law & order,” knowingly, as a stand-in to tell voters that the government will go after certain groups, and just so much more.
The United States incarcerates a scary amount of people, and DuVernay’s statistics offer up a bleak view of the rise of incarceration as well as the percentage of African Americans who are incarcerated and—this may be repeating myself, but it’s important and so I’m going to say it clearly—offers examples of how they have been targeted as a group for incarceration.
In terms of building her argument, one of the best things that she does is offer up viewpoints from both sides of the aisle. She does not make the mistake of only finding people who support her argument and including those voices.
Over the course of the film, the viewer is deluged with information. It is densely packed, but each piece is also tightly knit to the next one. DuVernay has created a clear through line from 1865 to 2016 (the inclusion of cell phone video is particularly powerful), and while there are certainly those out there who will deny her argument after they see the movie, those individuals are going to be few, far between, and wrong.
This last isn’t to say that everything about the movie is perfect, or that it won’t cause people to ask questions about some of what they’ve seen, but anyone who doesn’t stop, think, and consider what they’ve witnessed is someone who would concern me.
Despite what one may want watching it, there is no cathartic release at its close. “13th” does touch on, if only briefly, both Presidential candidates, their policies, and their history. While it may indicate that one candidate is worse than the other in terms of their approach to hatred of those who look/talk/act differently, it isn’t kind to either side.
In short, this is an incredibly constructed documentary and it is obvious that DuVernay not only has a powerful handle on the issues she puts on screen, but is an incredible filmmaker as well (as if we didn’t know that from her other movies). Beyond the beautiful backdrops when subjects are interviewed, and the various framing techniques she chooses”13th” features wonderful interstitial animations, elements that are almost animated versions of writing on a blackboard. They are more than just punctuations put on the end of a portion of the film (mimicking the words to songs that are playing), they are engaging all on their own.
“13th” will be on Netflix this Friday, October 7th. Watch it.
photo credit: NYFF