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'13th' Maps The Road From Slavery To Mass Incarceration


This is FRESH AIR. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, has a review of "13th," Ava DuVernay's new documentary that opened the New York Film Festival and is currently playing in selected theaters and on Netflix. In "13th," DuVernay, who's best known for directing "Selma," explores how the United States became the country with the world's largest prison population and why a hugely disproportional number of those prisoners are black.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Like most Americans of every skin color, I wish I no longer had to think about race. It's uncomfortable. It's depressing. It's infuriating. But it's also an inescapable fact of our lives. That fact lies at the heart of "13th," a new documentary by Ava DuVernay, best known for directing "Selma," that's now showing in selected theaters and on Netflix. Taking its title from the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which formally abolished slavery but left a loophole about involuntary servitude for convicted criminals, the film puts forth a searing, opinionated interpretation of American history. It argues that there's a direct line from slavery to segregation to our current era of mass incarceration, in which we have 5 percent of the world's people but 25 percent of the prisoners, 40 percent of them African-American. The movie opens at the speedy overview of racial politics in the century after the Civil War, from Jim Crow laws to the creation of myths about African-Americans as inveterate criminals in D.W. Griffith's "The Birth Of A Nation," a transparently racist, yet cinematically important film that President Woodrow Wilson called, like writing history with lightning. Wielding some lightening of her own, DuVernay takes us through such historical touchstones as the lynching of Emmett Till, the civil rights movement, the killing and imprisonment of black power leaders, Richard Nixon's racially charged Southern strategy and Ronald Reagan declaring the war on drugs. All this makes "13th" potent stuff. In one of the film's strongest moments from the early 1970s, a reporter asks the controversial activist professor Angela Davis about using violence to achieve social justice.


ANGELA DAVIS: I grew up in Birmingham, Ala., after the four young girls who were - who lived very - who lived - one of them lived next-door to me. I was very good friends with the sister of another one. My sister was very good friends with all three of them. My mother taught one of them in her class. And they went down. And what did they find? They found limbs and heads just thrown all over the place. I remembered from the time, I was very small. I remember the sounds of bombs exploding across the street, our house shaking. I remember my father having to have guns at his disposal at all times because of the fact that at any moment, someone - we might expect to be attacked. I mean, that's why when someone asks me about violence, I just find it incredible because what it means is that the person who's asking that question has absolutely no idea what black people have gone through, what black people have experienced in this country since the time the first black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.

POWERS: After the early history lesson, "13th" slows down to analyze two things that matter profoundly today. First, the staggering seven-fold increase in the number of prisoners in the U.S. created by the war on drugs and by Bill Clinton's epic 1994 crime bill; second, the rise of what's known as the prison industrial complex, in which our increasingly privatized penal system generates huge profits for corporations, who then use their clout to shape political decisions about crime and punishment, decisions that disproportionately harm African-Americans. In tackling these issues, "13th" feels very much of this particular historical moment. It clearly aligns itself with Black Lives Matter and with NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. Yet it isn't nakedly partisan. DuVernay pointedly goes after both Republicans and Democrats, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. In fact, some of the film's most sensible words come from Newt Gingrich, who adopts the philosopher king persona he prefers when he's not running for something. He says, the objective reality is that virtually no one who is white understands the challenge of being black in America. He's right. That may partly explain why even as I find large parts of "13th" convincing, I also find myself resisting its sleekly-packaged presentation of the jagged, messy, exhaustingly convoluted complexities of race in America. DuVernay fills the screen with super-brainy talking heads, yet she interweaves these voices so harmoniously that the analysis starts feeling far too neat, far too willing to play down life's contradictions. For instance, the fact that many ordinary African-Americans actually supported Clinton's crackdown on crime or that even as the FBI was targeting black leaders in the '60s, other parts of that very same government was fighting the war on poverty. Still, to say that "13th" is too simple isn't to say that you can safely ignore it. You should see it, not as a movie that gives you all the answers, but as one that compels you to ask questions about what's going on all around us. James Baldwin once wrote that people are trapped in history and history is trapped in them. DuVernay's film can't free us. But it does make you think about things that, like it or not, are part of what's trapping us.

GROSS: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and vogue.com. Monday on FRESH AIR, my guest will be comic Chris Gethard. His new off-Broadway show is a comic monologue about subjects he used to be hesitant to deal with on stage - depression and suicidal thoughts. He says getting the right meds actually made him funnier.

CHRIS GETHARD: The whole romanticized sad clown thing, we've got to get rid of that. That's just getting sick people to voluntarily stay sicker and sadder than they have to be.

GROSS: Gethard co-stars in Mike Birbiglia's movie "Don't Think Twice" about an improv comedy group. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.
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