You might have let yourself act surprised as the waters have risen and the floods have come. But you can't anymore, not after 13th, Ava DuVernay's miraculous cine-history of the criminalization of American blackness. Few films shake and astonish like this one, even though nothing in it should be a surprise.
Here, in the fleet first minutes, is the headwater of our present moment of police shootings and mandatory-minimum sentences: the prison boom, just after the Civil War, when freed slaves were jailed on false pretenses and put right back to work rebuilding the South. With terrifying vintage headlines (“Negro Boy Was Killed for Wolf Whistle”) and painful photos of lynchings, DuVernay shows the storms that have always raged — and that much of white America prefers to pretend have nothing to do with today's bad weather.
A black rapist — well, actually, a white actor in blackface — from D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation gets cross cut with Bush the First's 1988 Willie Horton ad; a black protester of the Civil Rights era, distinguished in his suit and hat, gets trailed by a brawling horde of angry whites who swipe and punch at him; this later gets spliced into footage of vituperative Trump supporters jeering and then cold-cocking a black protester just last summer.
The story of mass incarceration in America — the story of African Americans — is a story of climate not of weather. The first voice we hear in the film is Obama's: “The United States is home to 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of the world's prisoners.” You cannot pretend that that's something that just happened. For 100 brisk, despairing minutes, DuVernay exposes the historical continuity of anti-black law and order, that unrelenting abuse of black bodies in the name of white safety. She draws bold correspondence between back then and right the hell now, tracing the incremental and systemic cruelties and stupidities that have, over decades, officially institutionalized that fearful white impulse to punish black men — and dressed it up as tough-on-crime common sense.
DuVernay’s archival footage is fresh, crisp, often either thrilling or horrifying, the images layered and juxtaposed with the purposeful density of a Public Enemy track. Her talking heads — Van Jones, Jelani Cobb, Angela Davis, Bryan Stevenson and Henry Louis Gates Jr., among others — lay bare the history in quick, piercing clips. The film is always wheeling along, making the next connection, an urgent mosaic of heartbreak and hard truths. 13th establishes a fact and then moves on. You can't pretend there's nothing coded about politicians' law-and-order tough talk after you've heard Nixon's domestic-policy chief John Ehrlichman say “We couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.”
It was a bipartisan crime bill in 1994 that spurred the militarization of our police departments and the greatest explosion in incarceration rates in American history — a reminder that Obama-era gridlock might be preferable to Bill Clinton–era triangulation. 13th is bipartisan, too, when warranted: Yes, we see Hillary Clinton, as first lady, inveighing against “superpredators,” that faux-sociological ‘90s update of Griffith's fear of black men. That's balanced, of course, by Donald Trump, in 1989, bleating into news cameras about the need to bring back the death penalty to string up the Central Park Five.
DuVernay demonstrates with cold persuasiveness that both of today's candidates, in the heat of the ‘90s, were indulging in degrees of the same foul impulse to sacrifice black men in honor of white fear. It's a small comfort, later, in recent footage, to see Clinton acknowledge that the anti-crime measures of her husband's administration were a mistake. She calls for an end to the era of mass incarceration, while her opponent, in the first presidential debate, spoke the words “law and order” again and again, as if that's all that needs to be said. I can't say that Clinton's admission is enough, but I can say this: As a politician, she tilts toward what non-radical white Democrats feel comfortable with, so this film's very existence — and the fact that it will stream everywhere on Netflix — is some cause for hope.