Frankly, I don’t care much about the Oscars, especially in years where it seems voters have lost their mind over a film I don’t care to rush to the theater to see (La La Land) and which can’t be that great (just like I can’t get over the perfectly OK Chicago being considered the Best of that year, just because it was a musical). The Oscars lost a lot of credibility over the years, and they seem to be trying to make it up with this year’s non-musical nominations. In any case, I’m always curious about the documentaries that are nominated. A few years ago, all five nominations were on Netflix, so I was able to see all the documentaries before the ceremony. This year, I’ve only seen two, but I can’t imagine any of the other nominees being better than the two I have seen. In fact, these two documentaries might be my number 1 and 2 of 2016’s best films. One of them is a Netflix documentary, 13th, a most timely film that should be watched tonight, even if you have plans. Cancel them. Watch 13th instead.
You may have seen the most recent episode of Blackish, where Junior schools his dad with some docuknowledge. Of course, Junior has been watching documentaries, 13th in particular. This film, directed by Ava DuVernay, chronicles the history of the 13th amendment, that abolished slavery, yet created a loophole at the same time. The text of the amendment is as follows: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Except as a punishment for crime. The film shows how those words allowed a system of slavery to evolve into the mass incarceration we have today. The labeling of a large group of people who have been through the justice system as “criminals” and “super predators” continues to this day to allow so many people to be dismissed as something lesser than. More often than not, those people are people of color, especially African-American men. One of the facts that you’ll likely hear someone somewhere repeat is the fact that 1 in 17 white men at some point in their life spend some time being incarcerated. That number for African-American men: 1 in 3.
Don’t think that this is just a one-sided documentary. DuVernay interviews several conservative figures, including Newt Gingrich. Gingrich actually comes across as sensible and fair. He quite correctly laments how the “war on drugs” played out, saying that the harsher punishments for crack (aka a “black man’s drug”) versus those of cocaine (aka a “white man’s drug”) was a huge mistake. Other conservative voices in the film don’t go as far in admitting past mistakes, but there’s nothing in the editing or the way they are shown that demeans them or their point of view. If anything, she lets their words speak for themselves.
But this film definitely doesn’t let people off the hook. Of course, Nixon and his “war on crime” is a big culprit in the increasing prison population during the ’70’s. Reagan’s “War on Drugs” and Clinton’s extension of that war also greatly increased incarceration in America. While this may not be news to many of us, DuVernay finds shocking examples of officials from the Nixon and Reagan administrations explicitly stating that their policies were purposefully meant to decimate the African American community. It’s not just some abstract economic theory whose unintended consequences negatively affected minorities- these people knew what they were doing in targeting those people who weren’t part of their voting base.
13th at times seems to meander and wander. I thought often that it was going off on a tangent. But each time, DuVernay ties it back to the main theme of the film, showing how seemingly different issues are all part of the same problem. It’s like reading a masterfully written essay that covers a wide range of topics, but argues passionately for its position. Although this film was made before the election, it features the words of the Donald juxtaposed with imagery of the abuse of African Americans in the south in the 1960’s. “The Good Old Days” don’t look so good to me, Donald. Have no doubt, 13th seems to have been made in response to problems that don’t seem to be going away. It’s a must see.
The other documentary I’ve seen from this year’s Oscar nominees is OJ: Made in America.
I’d have a hard time choosing 13th over this film. But to be fair, they are really two different types of experiences. If DuVernay hadn’t chosen to limit herself to 1hr and 40 minutes, she might have had the chance to go deeper into her subject. They are really two different types of movies. In fact, I would say Made in America is really trying to have it both ways: It’s a television documentary that is also a limited series. At nearly 8 hours long, it’s a major accomplishment. Through one person, the director is able to expand the story to be about our country and its various lingering issues of race, celebrity, economic differences, and the justice system. If you have cable, it’s available on ESPN streaming.
There’s a third nomination, I Am Not Your Negro, based on James Baldwin’s writing, that touches on issues of race. What I fear is that these three films will split the votes of those that care about serious, topical documentaries that will challenge and educate you. I predict the win will go Life, Animated , a film about a kid who learns to communicate with the world through his love of Disney. Sorry, not good enough for me this year, but that film is available on Amazon Prime.
OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS: After watching 13th, be sure to watch Oprah Winfrey’s interview with DuVernay that is also showing on Netflix.
If you still have DVDs delivered from Netflix, put Free Angela and All Political Prisoners in your queue. Angela Davis is one of the many people interviewed in 13th, and her story is a fascinating one on its own terms. Although the documentary wasn’t perfect, and left some questions unanswered, it’s an interesting piece of American History that you may not know about. It’s like the story behind Hidden Figures – why did I never learn about this in school?
13th: Netflix: 5 out of 5 IMDB: 10 out of 10
O.J.: Made in America: IMDB 10 out of 10
Free Angela and All Political Prisoners: IMDB: 8 out of 10