Would W. E. B. DuBois, the prophetic sociologist, author, and negro activist of the last century, approve of the instantly celebrated race documentary titled “The 13th”? Director AvaDuVernay’s nonfiction film interprets the Constitution’s 13th Amendment, which officially abolished slavery, as a political sham; then she shifts to an extended, jumbled alarum about what’s called the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC). The film ignores black American uplift (DuBois’s great concern) for the currently fashionable appeal of “protest,” a term that patronizing news media always preface with “peaceful” — sanctioning it as synonymous with uplift.
But DuVernay’s thesis nose-dives. She glosses over the painful course of African-American history from slavery to segregation, from integration to pride, and on to endless, inescapable oppression.
This de-evolution of an American populace could make a fascinating film subject, but it would have to be proved — not just asserted — and The 13th isn’t that film. DuVernay, a former publicist who now directs movies with a publicist’s regard for exploitation over explication, is better at marketing concepts than she is at expressing ideas or feelings. Her previous film,Selma, about the 1965 civil-rights march in Alabama, was a similarly oversimplified Martin Luther King biography rather than a history of a movement. The 13th also slights both the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, then castigates American racism, with none of DuBois’s rhetorical specificity, elegance, or intellectual rigor.
A product of disastrously confused times, The 13th shows DuVernay’s trendy infatuation with the black civil-rights past. Her argument doesn’t aim toward the kind of enlightenment DuBois envisioned, according to which our moral and political understanding would allow us to overcome America’s slavery-based heritage. Instead, DuVernay demonstrates a perverse nostalgia for the torment and anguish that accompanied mid-century civil-rights activism. She rolls through history, drawing quick, superficial parallels between recent racial events (Ferguson, Baltimore) and past civil-rights milestones. Her implicit message: Nothing has changed. But this insults history and misrepresents black Americans’ spiritual, ethical, and economic drive.
The 13th proposes that through a century of political U-turns, blacks have endured sociological stasis. Her facile accusations and observations (the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, Bill Clinton’s 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill) evince mere pity for black America. Never confronting the Left-Behinds, the film neglects a critique of poverty and disregards the cultural and psychological phenomenon of racism. It follows the news media’s typically unhelpful assumption that contemporary racial issues can be approached in the same way as racism of the past.
DuVernay accepts the sophomoric term “institutional racism” as a catch-all for the complexity of U.S. society, industry, culture, and personal relations. She appropriates images of southern black pacifism and stoicism against thuggish white mobs as if by doing so, she is demonstrating the same courage and nobility. But she is no more noble than contemporary activists who let the principles of black advancement be overtaken by anarchists and lowlifes (the new mobs), or today’s craven media who exploit unrest for ratings and clicks.
In assembling a peculiar ensemble of characters, DuVernay disgraces the legacy of DuBois’s tough thinking. Of the people she spotlights, only a few actually suffered convictions such as those we saw in The Return, the documentary by Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Holloway, which followed efforts by working-class ex-cons to mend their lives after surviving the dehumanization of imprisonment. DuVernay gives more screen time to an aristocratic group of black achievers and spokespeople: Van Jones, Henry Louis Gates, Michele Alexander, Cory Booker, Khalil Muhammad, and others — all pontificating while looking glamorous and peering thoughtfully off-screen).