Skip to main content

We now have more African Americans under criminal supervision than all the slaves back in the 1850s.

13th
(2016)

I felt much the same way about Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated (and BAFTA-winning) documentary as I did about her earlier, Oscar-nominated feature Selma; it’s a solid, rather than remarkable piece of work. Towards the end of 13th there’s a debate about how to elicit change, and several voice the view that “You have to shock people into paying attention”. I’m not sure this does that.


Certainly, DuVernay appears content to fall back on stylistically tried-and-tested documentary tropes, such as washing the piece with a sombrely plaintive piano it simply doesn’t need (and, after a while, which actively begins to detract from the substance). But, despite a measured pace, she covers significant ground during these 100 minutes, and it’s notable that the strongest territory comes from her starting point; the commoditisation of the prison system, and what this means for African American incarceration.


She charts a cogent course in evidencing that the current system represents slavery in a different form, from abolition and The Birth of a Nation to Jim Crow and the civil rights movement, with the Nixon presidency seeing in the era of mass incarceration, spinning in to Reaganite drug prevention policies (most revealing is footage of Lee Attwater explaining, pre-election, the “Southern Strategy”, whereby old racist terms and policies are redressed abstractly).


DuVernay also illustrates that there’s very little difference between Republicans and Democrats when it comes down to such economically-based policy making; we hear the rhetoric of both Clintons (Hillary with her “super predators”, and Bill’s omnibus crime bill, which saw the expansion of the prison system, is credited as being far more damaging than anything his Republican presidential predecessors enacted, such that his unconvincing, retrospective “I’m sorry” just doesn’t wash).


But the documentary is perhaps too tempered, too reserved, lacking sufficient sharpness. On a few occasions, it feels like it is becoming truly galvanised – when Angela Davis is a talking head, and we see historical footage of her. It’s interesting that DuVernay cites delving into ALEC (Action for Legislative Change) as the most challenging piece of her jigsaw, in both understanding and relating it, as this is by far the most engaged part of the doc narratively (and again comes back to her starting point of attacking the subject from a business perspective).


She appears to express surprise that a “shadowy group” would be up to such lobbying, probably because she isn’t an arch-conspiracist, but my takeaway was that she could probably have gone even further down the rabbit hole (although probably not to awards acclaim). The list of ALEC-influenced legislative actions (Stand Your Ground, Three Strikes and Out, Mandatory Minimum Sentencing, and SB 1070 – the right to stop anyone who looks like an immigrant) makes for entirely damning evidence, and the twisted way in which ALEC can now claim it isn’t working with Corrections Corporation America, and is rather focusing on bail and parole – but purely because their client is the American Bail Coalition, as there will be money to be made from GPS monitoring: incarceration in communities instead of prisons – is a masterpiece of cynical behaviour.


Elsewhere, DuVernay discusses the judicial system (“If everybody insisted on a trial, the whole system would shut down”; 97% of locked up African Americans have plea-bargained), and the disparity in African American male prison statistics (6.5% of the US population, but 40.2% of the prison population). While the closing passage, on the subject of shocking people, brings out actual footage, it is, perhaps because it has been more discussed and seen, less effective in terms of overall effect. DuVernay is quite right to say that the documentary maker has to go where the story takes them, but in this case, it’s also true that she’s on stronger ground where she started from than in the broader canvas. 


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

Ladies and gentlemen, this could be a cultural misunderstanding.

Mars Attacks! (1996) (SPOILERS) Ak. Akk-akk! Tim Burton’s gleefully ghoulish sci-fi was his first real taste of failure. Sure, there was Ed Wood , but that was cheap, critics loved it, and it won Oscars. Mars Attacks! was BIG, though, expected to do boffo business, and like more than a few other idiosyncratic spectaculars of the 1990s ( Last Action Hero , Hudson Hawk ) it bombed BIG. The effect on Burton was noticeable. He retreated into bankable propositions (the creative and critical nadir perhaps being Planet of the Apes , although I’d rate it much higher than the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo ) and put the brakes on his undisciplined goth energy. Something was lost. Mars Attacks! is far from entirely successful, but it finds the director let loose with his own playset and sensibility intact, apparently given the licence to do what he will.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

So the devil's child will rise from the world of politics.

The Omen (1976) (SPOILERS) The coming of the Antichrist is an evergreen; his incarnation, or the reveal thereof, is always just round the corner, and he can always be definitively identified in any given age through a spot of judiciously subjective interpretation of The Book of Revelation , or Nostradamus. Probably nothing did more for the subject in the current era, in terms of making it part of popular culture, than The Omen . That’s irrespective of the movie’s quality, of course. Which, it has to be admitted, is not on the same level as earlier demonic forebears Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist .

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

I’m giving you a choice. Either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can.

They Live * (1988) (SPOILERS) Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of They Live – I was a big fan of most things Carpenter at the time of its release – but the manner in which its reputation as a prophecy of (or insight into) “the way things are” has grown is a touch out of proportion with the picture’s relatively modest merits. Indeed, its feting rests almost entirely on the admittedly bravura sequence in which WWF-star-turned-movie-actor Roddy Piper, under the influence of a pair of sunglasses, first witnesses the pervasive influence of aliens among us who are sucking mankind dry. That, and the ludicrously genius sequence in which Roddy, full of transformative fervour, attempts to convince Keith David to don said sunglasses, for his own good. They Live should definitely be viewed by all, for their own good, but it’s only fair to point out that it doesn’t have the consistency of John Carpenter at his very, very best. Nada : I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick a

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas