13th: Ava DuVernay offers up a devastating history of black America

The Selma director explores race and incarceration with a powerful and timely documentary

Behind Ava DuVernay’s enviable efficiency are bleak roots. “I feel like I have a short window,” the director of Selma recently told US magazine the New Republic. “I don’t know what’s there beyond four films, because none of us have done it.” Although she recently accepted a Disney gig set to make her the first black woman to direct a $100m movie, DuVernay understandably suspects that a single setback could see her career flounder in a way that a white, male counterpart’s might not.

And so she’s adopted a refreshingly energetic, experimental approach that’s in stark contrast to the fussy oeuvre-building of so many others. Case in point: she’s followed up her lauded, Oscar best film nominee with the last thing anyone in Hollywood would have expected: a documentary. 13th isn’t just any doc, either: it’s an outspoken, clear-headed, effortlessly damning treatise that joins the dots from colonial America to Black Lives Matter.

Available via Netflix, the film tracks a devastating path from the US constitution’s 13th amendment – which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude – to 2016, when one-in-three black American males can expect to be imprisoned during his lifetime. This process of criminalisation is charted through all manner of euphemistically named initiatives, from Jim Crow to Stand Your Ground. Initially barrelling through the decades at pace, the film dilates as it approaches the present day, reflecting the peculiarities of human memory that allow history to repeat itself.

DuVernay’s camera rarely sits still, sliding across the faces of her interviewees – who range from civil rights activists to rightwing politicians – as though in frantic search of answers. Meanwhile, a bold edit by co-writer Spencer Averick transforms what might, in less imaginative hands, be a straightforward talking-heads doc into a searing film essay, full of strong music cues and daring stylistic choices. Nearly every time someone utters the word “criminal”, it’s stamped across the screen in mile-high, all-caps letters, turning the chief linguistic weapon of a racist propaganda war back on itself.

There are moments when this rollicking train comes slightly off the tracks. In an attempt to spare 13th a tired formality, DuVernay awkwardly disguises the film’s voiceover as the words of an interviewee; the effect is halting. For the most part, though, this is a blistering state of the nation address from a film-maker who’s shown herself to be what so many of her more cushioned peers are not: responsive.

13th is out now on Netflix


Charlie Lyne

The GuardianTramp

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