Review of 13th (2016)


Seen in 2020.

US mass incarceration, mainly as it affects black men, with a loophole in the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution as one link in the history of racism.

By far the strongest parts of this documentary are the excerpts from Paul Weyrich (1942–2008) and Lee Atwater (1951–1991) effectively admitting to the cloaked racist intent of official policy. These were not new to me, and there is no corresponding evidence with regard to the constitutional amendment itself. Instead, there are musical interludes and cuts from The Colbert Report (2005) and Last Week Tonight (2014), aiming for an audience not so interested in history.

As much as I oppose mass incarceration and buy into DuVernay’s argument, the documentary is one-sided to a fault. All of the modern examples are clear cut, with petty criminals and innocent people jailed, imprisoned or killed, both out of proportion (outside the lex talionis or idealized system of punitive justice) and without any salutary effects for victims, perpetrators or society at large. The rate of actual criminal offences is ignored. The effects of narcotics on their users are ignored. Curiously, the basic idea of punitive justice is not examined, nor are any alternatives, nor are the psychological drivers of conservatism and racism. Instead, after the first half’s historical overview, the second half focuses on capitalism as the driving force behind the system’s perpetuation and the corruption of politics. This examination is better than implying the system is simply evil, but it’s hardly complete as explanations go. In Bowling for Columbine (2002), Michael Moore was careful to illustrate the US culture of fear, relevant here but unexamined. Voter suppression comes up, and the loss of a generation of black political leaders comes up, but there is no substance to their portrayal that corresponds to the substance of Weyrich’s and Atwater’s admissions.

The sense is of preaching to the choir, not of building an argument. The film explains the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement in the years that followed, particularly its reaction to the horrific 2020 murder of George Floyd, but by not hewing closer to facts, DuVernay misses the opportunity to contradict common false objections to BLM as a movement based on self-interest, grievance, identity politics and wishful thinking.

moving picture non-fiction