It’s 2021. In the time between the release of 13th Donald Trump’s presidency has been and gone, the Black Lives Matter work continues and we have many more names to add to the wall that DuVernay has put at the end of this like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. When it was made, I don’t think she saw Trump winning the election given how there was some hope at the end around Hilary Clinton’s denouncement of damaging mass incarceration policies. Makes me wonder how a coda to this film around Trump’s contributions to the issue of the racism of the justice system would play out.
Still though, 13th and the messages will not date until there are mass changes to how the United States fully reevaluates the balance between punishment and rehabilitation, profit and people and the imbalance of the ethnic make up of their prison population. Things have happened in the years since, but this is a film that looks at how things have gotten so bad and there is no challenging at how deftly DuVernay pulls this off.
There are a number of things in this documentary that I knew. I watch shows like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee that have addressed a lot of the more recent elements of this phenomenon. Hell, in the same list as 13th is the film that helped perpetuate a lot of problems and aided in the rebirth of the KKK – Birth of a Nation. That probably amounted to about 10-15% of the historical content in this film – the rest being a grotesque eye-opener.
It is difficult to make a film that is, like a lot of documentaries, a massive exposition dump. In this instance, a dark one that is deeply political and incredibly uncomfortable. Films like this are essential, as essential as seeing proper representation in narrative-driven films. Having people in this film still denying that any of this was motivated to either help companies in profit or to disenfranchise the non-white and the poor is… just jaw-dropping and just further illustrates how far there is to go.