Would W. E. B. DuBois, the prophetic sociologist, author, and negro activist of the last century, approve of the instantly celebrated race documentary titled “The 13th”? Director Ava DuVernay’s nonfiction film interprets the Constitution’s 13th Amendment, which officially abolished slavery, as a political sham; then she shifts to an extended, jumbled alarum about what’s called the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC). The film ignores black American uplift (DuBois’s great concern) for the currently fashionable appeal of “protest,” a term that patronizing news media always preface with “peaceful” — sanctioning it as synonymous with uplift.
But DuVernay’s thesis nose-dives. She glosses over the painful course of African-American history from slavery to segregation, from integration to pride, and on to endless, inescapable oppression.
A product of disastrously confused times, The 13th shows DuVernay’s trendy infatuation with the black civil-rights past. Her argument doesn’t aim toward the kind of enlightenment DuBois envisioned, according to which our moral and political understanding would allow us to overcome America’s slavery-based heritage. Instead, DuVernay demonstrates a perverse nostalgia for the torment and anguish that accompanied mid-century civil-rights activism. She rolls through history, drawing quick, superficial parallels between recent racial events (Ferguson, Baltimore) and past civil-rights milestones. Her implicit message: Nothing has changed. But this insults history and misrepresents black Americans’ spiritual, ethical, and economic drive.
DuVernay accepts the sophomoric term “institutional racism” as a catch-all for the complexity of U.S. society, industry, culture, and personal relations. She appropriates images of southern black pacifism and stoicism against thuggish white mobs as if by doing so, she is demonstrating the same courage and nobility. But she is no more noble than contemporary activists who let the principles of black advancement be overtaken by anarchists and lowlifes (the new mobs), or today’s craven media who exploit unrest for ratings and clicks.
In assembling a peculiar ensemble of characters, DuVernay disgraces the legacy of DuBois’s tough thinking. Of the people she spotlights, only a few actually suffered convictions such as those we saw in The Return, the documentary by Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Holloway, which followed efforts by working-class ex-cons to mend their lives after surviving the dehumanization of imprisonment. DuVernay gives more screen time to an aristocratic group of black achievers and spokespeople: Van Jones, Henry Louis Gates, Michele Alexander, Cory Booker, Khalil Muhammad, and others — all pontificating while looking glamorous and peering thoughtfully off-screen).
DuVernay demonstrates a perverse nostalgia for the torment and anguish that accompanied mid-century civil-rights activism.
How ironic that DuVernay’s “experts” — post-civil-rights patricians and quislings — exemplify the group that DuBois labeled “the Talented Tenth.” In a 1903 essay, DuBois predicted a class of educated blacks — one out of ten — who he dreamed would help lead their fellows out of post-slavery misery. More than a century later, the black educated caste (professors, pundits, foundation-funded “activists”), bolstered by the privileges of academia and the media, are an embarrassment to DuBois’s prophecy. These select few have hijacked the grievances of the less-successful to justify their own protected professional standing and to broadcast their individual resentments as if grinding the axes of the masses.
The 13th is full of accusations by opportunists-posing-as-historians who profit from reinforcing the fear that black Americans by and large have not experienced progress. There’s such a serious lack of political sophistication that DuVernay never confronts the welfare state as enslavement. She picks apart the American Legislative Exchange Council but fails to examine its counterpart, the Service Employees International Union. Her PIC pretext depends on the false assumption that the economic and political issues of the 21st century are exactly like those of the past. This becomes insupportable when Duvernay perpetuates the canard that the circumstances of Trayvon Martin’s death are equivalent to the circumstances of Emmitt Till’s killing. The emotional pain of these completely different events has moved many people to favor their dismay over the facts. Thus, DuVernay’s mashes together Jim Crow, PIC, Black Lives Matter, and police brutality. If all these calamities are the same, then none of them have particulars that a historian — or a real-life, suffering witness — might truly respect or learn from.
The use of newsreel and video montages to link Millennial race turmoil with the fight for freedom that was waged more than 50 years ago denies what separates contemporary law-breakers (Michael Brown, Eric Garner) from their dignified, victimized ancestors; it misses the opportunity for a more complicated, less self-satisfied DuBoisian examination.
As she did in Selma, DuVernay piles on tragedy, guilt, and abhorrence. She follows Spike Lee’s method of throwing in every grievance she can think of, every offense she has stored up. Black American history as Bamboozled II. From Fred Hampton to the miscreant Freddie Gray, DuVernay trots out a motley troupe of undifferentiated fatalities; her haphazard technique makes Angela Davis’s comment that “reform inevitably leads to more repression” sound unreasonable. (Convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu Jamal must be lost on DuVernay’s hard drive — or else his once-sacred position in modern protest lore has been usurped by Trayvon Martin–inspired sentimentality.) When DuVernay invokes cheerleaders Rachel Maddow and John Oliver, The 13th hits the bottom of the barrel.
The 13th could be the recruiting film Black Lives Matters has not managed to produce on its own. DuVernay borrows BLM’s shallow perspective and lack of consequence, as well as its progressive jargon — academic persiflage about “the black body,” leading to the repetitive motif of the word “CRIMINAL” flashing on screen. This fundamentally confuses social prohibition with cultural demonization. That graphic word-image is underscored with anxious, angry-sounding hip-hop music to give it unearned emotional weight. It’s cheap bombast because DuVernay uses utterly mediocre, didactic hip-hop, often the uninspiring, doggerel-prone rapper Common.Here’s the Talented Tenth’s 21st-century iteration (and alienation) that is overlooked in Duvernay’s bourgie approach: the great Houston rap group Geto Boys. Their rough-spoken, bluesy, and magnificent 1995 album The Resurrection takes DuBois’s prediction and spins it: “By the year 2015 they gonna have 70% of our community locked-up. . . . It’s gonna be like Warsaw. Ghetto.” But the Geto Boys went beyond simply exaggerating and griping about incarceration; they dealt with the corruption affecting the Clinton-era black urban mindset and carried the voice of the Left-Behinds. The Resurrection’s opening track, “Still,” was a stunning and profane declaration against the insidious persistence of deprivation and racism — black outrage turned in on itself and thus exposing the range of America’s human tragedy — treating it as, well, black humor. Geto Boys examined their own lethal desperation and rethought the sentimentalizing of civil-rights politics. This was long before DuVernay’s Talented Tenth of black academia — and Hollywood — discovered guilt, horror, and blame and capitalized on them as the new social consciousness. Great art like Geto Boys’ The Resurrection goes deep; this facile documentary doesn’t.
About precedents: The 13th was chosen as the opening-night event of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New York Film Festival. It is the first documentary ever accorded that prestigious position, breaking precedent with the festival’s 53-year emphasis on narrative fiction. It’s perverse, given that DuVernay’s film blames The Birth of a Nation, D. W. Griffith’s 1915 masterpiece, for setting new precedents in racism — an insultingly glib defamation for a venerable film institution to sponsor. One of DuVernay’s talking heads blathers about a “search for the medium of technology that will confirm your experience such that your basic humanity can be recognized.” If The 13th is payback, it isn’t good enough to answer Griffith’s flawed genius. But black-and-white cookies were served at the opening-night party.
— Armond White is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and, most recently, New Position: The Prince Chronicles.