Employing key but subtle twists on the convention talking head documentary, Ava DuVernay’s 13th explains how slavery in the U.S. was never really abolished without ever resorting to preaching.
It’s not until nine minutes into Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, charting the history of slavery and mass incarceration in the U.S., that the first chyron flashes on the screen. Up until then, DuVernay has presented us with a handful of unidentified, mostly black voices. They’re explaining how the American economy was built on the exploitation of black bodies. Without flashing their credentials at us, we must evaluate what they say for ourselves, without the help of the academy — the mostly white establishment — to validate what we’re hearing. Their refined accents, clear diction, and sharp suits may suggest authority and education. But DuVernay wants us to actively think about how we decide whom to listen to and why.
This long delay before telling us, explicitly, that she’s interviewed experts, is just one of DuVernay’s many subtle ways of flipping the “talking head” documentary on its head. She does so with several purposes: avoiding any form of preaching; confronting us with our prejudices by withholding information; and giving dignity and weight to people, work, and stories that are too often dismissed, degraded, and forgotten.
A history of slavery after so-called abolition
Starting with the passing of the 13th amendment, DuVernay traces how a loophole in the law — that criminals may still be subject to slavery — has been exploited throughout the years right up until present day. Slavery was never really abolished so much as given another name. Imprisoning African Americans has allowed private industry, both those providing service to prisons and contracting cheap labour from prisons, to continue to profit off of black bodies.
These aren’t your average “talking head” interviews
These aren’t your average “talking head” interviews that we’ve been conditioned to easily tune out as preaching or fact delivery. DuVernay shoots her subjects in profile, often with a moving camera rather than providing direct address into lens. The cinematic grammar is as vivid and alive as DuVernay’s subjects’ voices. We can hear their passion and indignation in every sentence. It gets us to listen because we don’t feel like we’re being forced to.
DuVernay often opts for wide shots that create dramatic compositions rather than framing her talking heads in medium shots or closeups. These imbue her subjects with dignity and link their words with memorable images. Consider Michelle Alexander, whom we see speaking from a red armchair against a tall window. She may be at the bottom of the frame, but the image calls to mind a throne. It’s a subtle way of crowning her subject, hinting at us that she’s important without using the usual documentary cues like immediately listing credentials. Instead, DuVernay gets us to look at her subjects like characters, or perhaps more accurately, like individuals with whom we can empathize.
The film’s music echoes the expert interviews
The film is punctuated with music by black artists from each era depicted onscreen, starting with the early 20th century right up to present day. Their lyrics, which DuVernay spells out on screen, echo the experts DuVernay has interviewed. It’s a reminder that you don’t need a Ph.D. and a complete understanding of the inner workings of racial politics in the U.S. to see that the system is rigged. Artists and academics have been saying the same thing for decades. Incarceration as slavery may be news to white people, but it’s long been understood by black people and deeply ingrained in the culture. When DuVernay makes use of rap and hip hop, it’s a reminder that music that has often been dismissed in white culture has actually been speaking important truths.
When getting arrested becomes heroic
After the 13th amendment was passed, the only way to legally enslave black people was to brand them as criminals. So the white establishment found excuses to arrest them. It was true in the 1880s, and it was true in the 1980s. The only difference is that, in more recent years, it has become gauche to explicitly mention race in a degrading manner. So politicians who wanted to eliminate the black vote, or cater to white racists, came up with racialized language, instead. Part of what was revolutionary about the Civil Rights movement was that it turned getting arrested by white people into a heroic act. It turned the establishment’s oppression against them.
An innovative approach to chyrons
One of the threads running through the film is that so many of America’s incarcerated population were wrongfully arrested, over-punished, or both. Worse, once you get released from prison, you carry a scarlet letter with you for the rest of your life that impedes your rights and ability to function in society because the system defines you by your crime: a rapist, a murderer, a thief. When DuVernay talks to current activists who have been incarcerated, her chyrons merely refer to them as “formerly incarcerated”. We don’t know why they were arrested, if they’re convicted criminals, or if they were wrongfully arrested. DuVernay prevents us from prejudging them based on whether we think they deserved to be imprisoned. She forces us to listen to them merely as ambassadors of the prison experience.
DuVernay has an impressive knack for finding exhilarating but measured rhythms, keeping your adrenaline pumping without ever exhausting you. When working with historical footage, she finds ways to cut it together with current images, voiceover, and music, to make it feel alive and present rather than merely a historical document. Jason Moran’s unobtrusive original score, often purely percussive, helps keep the energy levels high. As the film marches through history, DuVernay creates tension in the reveal of the total prison population in the U.S. throughout the decades; the first fact stated in the film is the extent of it today, so we wait with baited breath to see just when things got so bad. Part of keeping the film short and succinct means ending on a climax, with the last line spoken resonating as the credits roll and you leave the film.
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