Ava DuVernay’s 13th: It’s About Hope, Not History

Before you sit down to watch 13th, director Ava DuVernay’s new film about mass incarceration, take off your historian’s hat. This is no scholarly lesson about the past. Instead, DuVernay takes us on an exploration that she hopes will, first and foremost, shock. Once it has your attention, 13th mobilizes the power of the visual and the sonic, along with human stories, to teach about hope and our capacities to work toward change in a way that no historical text could.

13th is foremost an act of visual politics. When its narrator explains how images can “shock,” we learn some of what the film hopes to accomplish. The shock of horror, of recognition, of awakening to a system of racialized, inhuman degradation is what the film hopes to provoke. There is a history to this, DuVernay reminds us. Like 19th century anti-slavery advocates who used gruesome images — the former slave Gordon and his scarred back — 13th makes us feel as well as think our way to action. As the civil rights movement relied upon images broadcast on the nightly news — young protesters set upon by fire hoses and police dogs — so too does 13th bring the inhumanity of mass incarceration into living rooms, where the sight may mobilize us. This is an African American tradition that historian Aston Gonzalez explains has its roots in the prints and photographs of early 19th century black artist-activists.

Once awake, we must choose how best to act. 13th is open-ended, inviting us to find a place among the advocates DuVernay features. In this sense, the film is more primer than manifesto. DuVernay is content to allow each of us to find a way to action. Some will choose reform; gritty, close to the ground change within the criminal justice system as embodied in the work of a District Attorney such as the late Ken Thompson. Others of us will become abolitionists, concluding that the prison industrial complex is rotten to its core and must be wiped away, as Angela Davis has long urged. Congress member Charles Rangel hints at a third path. The way forward may be by a human rights approach, one that hold mass incarceration in the United States up to international standards, monitors, and remedies.

I watched 13th with the Criminal Law Society at Michigan Law where I teach. We hoped, I think, that DuVernay would point out a role for lawyers. She does. But her examples suggest that overcoming mass incarceration may require getting beyond the conventional. Lawyer and Equal Justice Initiative director Bryan Stevenson fuels our shock by asserting the immoral equivalence of early 20th-century lynching and today’s criminal justice system. But Stevenson has moved beyond lawyering to become a cultural worker, building a memorial and national lynching museum in Montgomery, Alabama. Intriguing is the example of Michelle Alexander, whose book The New Jim Crow has done more than any text to bring mass incarceration to light, at least before DuVernay’s movie. Alexander is the most clear and nuanced voice in the film. But, since being interviewed for 13th, she has taken off her lawyer’s hat to join New York’s Union Theological Seminary. Perhaps faith is another avenue for those moved to action. For DuVernay, the filmmaker, those who work beyond legal and policy circles have an important role to play in the fight against mass incarceration.

Most striking about 13th is how DuVernay is able to fuel hope. In many ways, this is a deeply pessimistic film, one that treats the degradation of black Americans as a permanent, intractable feature of the nation. In this are echoes of historian Mary Frances Berry, legal scholar Derrick Bell, and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, all of whom have suggested that there is little more for black Americans to hope for than struggle. Perhaps it is in DuVernay’s elegant cinematography, which renders ordinary scenes lush and deep. Perhaps it is in how she deploys music — rhythms, beats, lyrics — to punctuate and drive the narrative. Surely hope is in 13th’s final images — don’t miss them. Underneath the closing credits, DuVernay arrays snapshots. Ordinary, everyday images of black Americans at home, at play, and wrapped in joy, love, family, and the simple pleasure of striking a pose. In these are our best hopes, hopes that have seen black Americans through history’s trials. These images give us another vantage point on those caught in mass incarceration’s clutches. It is a counter-narrative of beauty as only the visual can render it. The 13th Amendment’s loophole gave license to a system that has brutalized black and brown men and women in the United States. DuVernay’s 13th responds by asserting a fierce, relentless humanity that neither law nor the systems it has set in place can extinguish.