NYFF Review: ‘The 13th’ (Opening Night Film)

Reviewed by Lesley Coffin

The New York Film Festival this year has chosen to forgo their usual approach of selecting some of the highest anticipated major movies coming out during awards season…and this year will use their clout to push a film into the public’s purview which could have been neglected. The 13th is one of the unlikeliest films to be selected to open one of the major international film festivals, it is the first documentary to open the New York Film Festival. And rather than offering the typical crowd-pleasing Hollywood film, The 13th promises to be enraging and thought-provoking…the reactions director Ava DuVernay clearly wants to ignite from film-goers.

The 13th is an examination of the subject of mass incarceration, and how its roots go back to the 13th Amendment. While ordinarily considered the amendment which abolish slavery, DuVernay links language in it, the loss of civil rights granted to convicted felons to have perpetrated racial problems tied back to Jim Crowe laws, the KKK, the fight for Civil Rights, and mass incarceration in prisons. Specifically mass incarceration of black men for drug charges, although it’s noticeable that the issue of gender isn’t explored as it could or should be. The documentary makes claims that the amendment’s language essentially allowed for loophole to maintain a form of legal slavery and continued racism, and uses the first half of the documentary to essentially provide evidence.

The 13th is an excellently researched documentary; one made by a director who clearly knows the history and topic being explored. Not only does she find some gripping archival primary sources to comment on and justify the arguments being made, but the authorities she finds to speak on the issues are just that…authorities. Respected, educated, and leaders in their fields who can speak on the subjects articulately and provide details and background general audiences are almost certainly overlooking. And despite the film largely being a mix of talking heads and archival footage, DuVernay’s cinematic skills as a director are clearly on display, and may be better composed film than her highly praised narrative Selma. She uses her directorial hand to move the film along with a sense that she’s a woman on a mission, while letting the interviews and archival evidence stand on its own.

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The documentary certainly moves, and perhaps moves too swiftly to make as strong an impact as it desires to. It may be unfair to compare the two, but The 13th and OJ: Made in America (currently the highest praised documentary of the 2016 film season) are primary examples of tackling related subjects in opposite forms. OJ: Made in America tackles the subjects of race and crime by using OJ Simpson as a case study to address the various complex issues that played a role in his fate, and dig into minutia and complexities of race, the justice system, and media. The 13th is almost a survey on the topics which audiences will need to return to later; the evidence providing footnotes for follow-up they’ll need to do at a later date. In a sense, the emotional and eloquent comments throughout the documentary about mass incarceration, racial injustice within the criminal system, and Black Lives Matters should be used to open the door to far more conversation, education and dialogue on the subjects long after the film’s credits role.

In that sense, The 13th is an ideal film to play at film festivals. Not only because it’s likely to appear on ballots come award season, but because festivals bred active film viewing from audiences. The act of attending at film festival promotes audiences to watch AND THEN discuss the film they’ve just watched; either through post screening Q&As with the filmmakers themselves or afterwards among fellow attendees. And Friday night, with six screenings scheduled before its premiere in theaters and Netflix the following week, it’s clear that’s the intention and purpose behind The 13th. To be a documentary that actively engages and provokes viewers to start the conversation.

Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website lesleycoffin.com)

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