February: 13th (Ava DuVernay, 2016)

”The Visceral and the Historical”

Stephen Charbonneau (Florida Atlantic University)

Much more than a survey of the history of race in America, Ava DuVernay’s film, 13th, is a form of essayistic advocacy and activism. The film’s treatment of the past is energized by a sense of urgency to bring about change in the present. Unlike more traditional and nostalgic uses of archival imagery where our struggles from the past leave the viewer with a smug sense of accomplishment, 13th reminds us that such imagery is doggedly immanent in our contemporary situation. For example, a particular black and white film strip of a Black man being harassed and physically abused by a gang of white men appears multiple times, once in a segment that places it within its original historical context of the 1960s and again in conjunction with violent footage from Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign. Here the footage returns to help us see the past in the present as a white Trump voter sucker-punches an African American protestor.

Testimonies from the likes of Michelle Alexander, Jelani Cobb, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. balance the concreteness of the film’s historical narrative about mass incarceration with an insistence on the legacy of slavery, on the consistent failure of this country to come to grips with what historian Kevin Gannon describes as the “centuries-long historical process” of criminalizing and taking away the rights of African Americans. Towards the end of the film a focus emerges on the politics of the visual and use of shock as a form of reckoning for white audiences. Cory Greene, one of the featured voices in the film and the founder of How Our Lives Link Together (HOLLA!), sets the tone through his remarks on both the necessity of deploying imagery of violence committed against Black people as well as the perils of oversaturating screens with “Black bodies as dead bodies.” This cautionary note from Greene is balanced by testimony by others, including Cobb who reminds the viewer that “Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement used television in this way: Look, this is what segregation looks like; these are dogs attacking children; these are people being fire hosed.” He punctuates these comments with a note on the inescapable and deeply historical struggle to find the “medium of technology that will confirm your experience such that your basic humanity is recognized.” Van Jones similarly insists that new technology can now “force a conversation” as imagery of police abuse towards African Americans grows increasingly ubiquitous. For me, the film ultimately responds to Greene’s warning through its own masterful balancing of the visceral with the intellectual and the historical. The film leaves us shocked but nevertheless oriented towards the deep roots of our present crises.

Of course, there is much more to say about this film. But if I accept the spirit of the film’s message, I also feel compelled to reflect on my own institution’s recent history of flirtation with the prison industrial complex. In 2013, the Board of Trustees at Florida Atlantic University approved a proposal to rename our football stadium after the private prison company, Geo Group, and was subsequently labelled “Owlcatraz” (a fusion of our mascot, the owl, and Alcatraz). Our students and faculty responded with a successful campaign to stop the agreement and to forestall this particular alliance between our university and a private prison company with a dodgy human rights record. The urgency of DuVernay’s message, then, resonates deeply with the recent history of my institution and the lives of our students. The film leaves us with a simple message and one reiterated by DuVernay in a recent reflection on the 2016 election: resist.

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”What Hurts”

Alex Johnston (University of California, Santa Cruz)

13th, the new documentary by Selma director Ava DuVernay, constitutes a filmic articulation of scholar Fredric Jameson’s famous maxim, “History is what hurts.” Taking its name from the 13th Amendment of the Constitution, which outlawed slavery on the basis of race while affirming its legality “as a punishment for crime,” the film is a sprawling primer on the wretched history of the criminal justice system since the end of the Civil War, when it emerged as a prominent apparatus for the subjugation and disenfranchisement of black people in the United States. As opposed to the melancholic arthritic ache favored by a filmmaker like Ken Burns, however, DuVernay presents this history as an open wound, one requiring our urgent attention.

The scope and range of her subject requires broad strokes. Thoughtfully deployed archival materials, a judicious use of animated texts and charts, and an impressive array of talking heads (including Angela Davis, Van Jones, Michelle Alexander, and Cory Booker, but also, surprisingly, Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist) move us briskly through time: from the post-Reconstruction period of white terrorism against blacks, the convict lease system, and the era of Jim Crow, through the brief moment of respite, hope, and de jure relief during the Civil Rights Movement, followed by the ruthless and calculated negating of those gains via Richard Nixon’s “war on crime,” Ronald Reagan’s “war on drugs,” and Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill, and concluding in our present moment of filmed “death by police,” Black Lives Matter, and mass incarceration. It is a lot to fit into a 100-minute film, but the transhistorical scope means DuVernay is able to move beyond Faulknerian historical platitudes, and connect past events and present realities with impressive complexity and specificity.

This is on poignant display in a sequence late in the film, which lays audio of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump instigating violence against African American protestors, over a montage of news footage of this violence being enacted at his rallies, and archival footage of similar acts of white on black violence during the Civil Rights Movement. What could be an overly simplistic, if bluntly effective conflation of past and present – such as when Trump expresses the desire to punch a protester in the face, over footage of a Civil Rights protestor being similarly attacked – is elevated by DuVernay’s repeated inclusion of Trump’s use of the phrase, “In the good old days…”. Instead of merely illustrating the disturbing resonances between past and present, DuVernay is making legible the ideologically-driven rhetorical processes and the insidious willful historical blindness through which such resonances may yet be even more fully and horrifyingly realized.

13th’s epic scale and strong ideological commitments are central to much of its power, but also the source of some of its deficiencies. Concerns have been raised about the degree to which the film ignores changing trends and dynamics in the criminal justice system which do not easily conform to a narrative of prisons as a tool for the control of black bodies. A self-reflexive meditation on the role of imagistic representations of race, racism, and racial violence to both resist and perpetuate systems of oppression is short-circuited by DuVernay’s refusal to seriously consider the ethical questions raised by recent viral videos of black death. Also worth noting is the director’s unwillingness to explicitly engage with (or mention) the concept of prison abolition, despite the film’s overarching emphasis on the impossibility of reform, and the presence of Davis, a leading abolitionist thinker.

Yet in the age of now-President Trump, whose election was partially the product of yet another structural remnant of the United States’ origins as a slavocracy, these criticisms feel somehow less urgent. For at its core, 13th is both a case study and a call to arms. To quote Jameson again, it offers us a painful reminder that history’s “alienating necessities will not forget us, however much we might prefer to ignore them.”

6 thoughts on “February: 13th (Ava DuVernay, 2016)

  1. There was an interesting discussion during the LiveTweet about the aesthetics and form of the film. For instance, the interviews are constructed in such a way that their formal features are quite noticeable. First, the fact that the interview subjects are not immediately identified creates a sense of confusion about their speaking positions – and potentially their credibility since we may not know who they are. Then the rapid editing of the interviews as well as the strange positioning of the subjects potentially distracts from what they are saying. I wonder about some of these choices. Do they serve a particular function or is this simply formal experimentation for its own sake? Another good question that was posed by Chris Cagle has to do with whether this film can be considered an “essay film.” The fast pacing takes it away from the more contemplative form of essay film, but – as Kristen Fuhs suggested – perhaps the fast pace is what allows it to make an argument that links various historical periods and episodes together with coherent rhetoric. I would be interested to hear what others think of these questions.

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    1. In re: the interview aesthetics, I want to reiterate something I mentioned during the live tweet last night: the chair that talking-head Cory Booker is sitting in is silly. This may seem like a frivolous comment, but this film pays so much attention to its aesthetics – especially the aesthetics of these interviews – that the lack of aesthetic detail here stands out to me. In contrast to Angela Davis who is almost dwarfed by cathedral ceilings or Van Jones, who looks like he’s speaking from inside the elevator in your cool friend’s industrial conversion loft, Booker’s folksy upholstered chair mise-en-scene seems especially (and perhaps meaningfully) understated. As someone who I assume has 2020 aspirations, this feels like a strange branding choice, something I can’t imagine he wasn’t thinking about when he sat down to film this interview.

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  2. Great views and comments for the film “13th”. I’d like to deepen the discussion and share my views on the film as well as there are so much to talk about. However, I will avoid Donald Trump in my comment as I feel the problem has persisted within America for several years and not risen or reborn through a newly elected President. This documentary could possibly be the film of the year. It clarifies what the 13th Amendment states and how it has been misused over the past several years. Being an Indian and coming to the United States, the problem of racism and the segregation of different races has been a problem and is still an overpowering problem from my own perception and experience. There were several shocking facts mentioned in the documentary. Presidents like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton couldn’t solve the problem that has existed for a long time. Instead, laws were introduced that profited the prisons and turned it into more of a business. Currently, the United States holds 22% of the world’s prisoners which is important to have a conversation about as it leads to certain questions. Why is it still a high percentage? What can be done to prevent the transformation of prisons to business industries? And the most important question, how can the rising crime be prevented? But the film itself explains the experiences, history, and problems the blacks have faced over several years and it strikes effective thoughts within anyone watching the film. The inclusion of hip-hop songs in-between also plays an important role when one thinks about it since several problems presented in today’s culture have been and is still being brought through songs as a medium. So I do not consider it a distraction to the film nor do I consider it a flaw. In fact, I believe that it strikes a point through its lyrics. Furthermore, the animations and the cuts aren’t flaws according to me. They seem to enhance the experience, the surprise, and the unbelievable facts that are presented in the film. I agree with Bill Nichols that this film should be nominated for an Oscar. This documentary deserves more recognition, even though the rating is 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, and I feel that it is a film that will go down in the list as one the most iconic and influential films of 2017 towards the future.

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  3. The film’s great strength is its historicity, an instance in which history is quite literally a montage of carefully chosen evidence and testimony. I had no trouble with the focus on African Americans as the implication was that they have always been the model for a disenfranchised underclass. My problems, and they are slight, were with the hip hop montage itself, cut so tightly as to preclude any sort of reflection on what was being said. Cutting from one camera angle to another within the talking heads testimony was a distraction as was the animation of the graphics. But then again I am less the intended audience for the film than are the African American youths who will have to fight the next iteration of this oppression. It is their rhythm that matters.

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  4. Great commentaries that capture the urgency and outrage that courses through this film. Thanks!
    If there were a flaw, apart from the linearity that Stork notes, I’d say it is in taking at face value that a war on crime equals a war on blacks. Why was this so? Were the drugs that led to the arrests and incarceration of blacks vastly more present in black communities than elsewhere? Why? What was behind this if it’s true? What were the alternatives to mass incarceration and why were they not pursued? Why was ferreting out the users and dealers so urgent when so much other crime in these neighborhoods received minimal attention (see Nick Broomfield’s The Grim Sleeper for a searing indictment of this form of neglect). Didn’t other communities and groups use these same drugs? Clearly it was a war on black males above all, but how did this syllogistic linkage achieve the plausibility it gained? What is missing from this picture?
    And, a regret: the early discussion of prison as a “leasing” system in the post Civil War/Reconstruction days that returned black male labor to southern plantations is passed over far too quickly. This strategy is a less known chapter in American history and clearly foreshadowed all that followed, including the current “slave labor” performed by prisoners in general. I wish it had gotten more attention and that such threads were woven through and through rather than chain linked in the more linear fashion that the film adopts.
    It is, despite all this, my choice for this year’s Oscar.

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  5. Thank you both for these thoughtful responses to THE 13TH and its discourse on images of race and political violence. At the risk of being pedantic, I do want to press on Alex Johnston’s reference to the famous Jameson quotation, which is echoed by Bill Nichols in REPRESENTING REALITY. The quote, from the POLITICAL UNCONSCIOUS, while it deploys the language of direct, bodily pain, in fact refers not to the sort of history that THE 13TH practices, though the film cannot quite avoid touching on this sense of history: history as absent or immanent cause. For Jameson, whether we agree with him or not, history hurts not only because of the carnage it is filled with (a la Benjamin’s Angel of History staring back at the pile of wreckage, but because it eludes direct representation; history is a force and we are carried along in its wake. For Jameson, here channeling Althusser and Spinoza, history is the only way to truly apprehend capitalism in its totality, present everywhere and nowhere. In this sense, and I’m not sure this departs from the reading here, I find myself wondering if THE 13TH–especially in its at times too linear positing of a causal relationship between images and political violence–is more a symptom of history than a work of historiography. Indeed, in watching it, and in the responses here, the role of capital and its mutations is implied yet never named. It is there in Stephen Charbonneau’s turn to the would-be-purchaser of stadium naming rights, itself an example of the concatentation of prisons, universities, and racial capitalism, yet is never named. It is there in THE 13th’s refusal to engage abolition and its interest in identifying images as present causes. In this sense THE 13th does indeed embody Jameson’s history that hurts insofar as it is overdetermined by a structure it cannot or refuses to visualize or name, even as it drips with its force. Thanks, again, for both of your terrific thoughts!

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