NYFF Film Review: ’13th’ Could Be One of the Best Documentaries Ever Made

thirteenth2016 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: In this political landscape where racial tensions are at an all-time high, and humanity is desperately searching for a peaceful compromise of understanding, Ava DuVernay‘s “13th” from Netflix is about as timely as a film can be. A passionate powerhouse of emotions and content, DuVernay somehow manages to top her last two features – “Selma” and “Middle of Nowhere” – with a masterful and heartfelt look into our criminal justice system. Straightforward and uniquely unbiased in a way we haven’t seen, DuVernay’s film is downright incredible.

“13th” takes a look at the prison system in the United States. It reveals the nation’s history of racial inequality and its effects today. DuVernay’s film is perfectly timed, which is to say that this film could have been made at any point since the introduction of slavery hundreds of years ago, and it would feel just as appropriate.

Looking at the film from a mere filmmaking level, it’s among the finest endeavors produced this year. DuVernay’s staging of her commentators, along with her choices to migrate from one vivid segment to the next, is remarkable. Her use of music captures the pain and essence of the time period in which it is covering. She acquires astounding and riveting archival footage that isn’t used for propaganda or a short-changed response. She allows the images to burn into the psyche of the viewers. We are placed, first hand, into a time of corruption and unimaginable injustice, all of which are the past and the present. Dual cinematographers Hans Charles and Kira Kelly frame each scene with an impeccable adoration. Film editor Spencer Averick, who worked with DuVernay on “Selma” in 2013, emerges as one of the most captivating and invigorating editors in the business.

avaduvernaythe13th-610x250In the most literal explanation of the film’s brilliance, it very well could be one of the defining documentaries this century. It’s among the very best ever made. “Hoop Dreams,” “Bowling for Columbine” and “Grizzly Man” are all wondrous achievements that have earned their place in film history. “13th” assertively places itself right next to them, and next to any film that captures the human spirit. Moving and rapturous, there’s no other film like it this year.

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A film reviewer must always remain unbiased. We must judge the film on the merits of its work and its assembled team – at least in the eyes of many journalists. One of the impossible tasks of watching “13th” is not recalling my own experiences within my own life. To give a little background, I come from a Puerto Rican and black heritage. I was born in Bronx, N.Y. before moving to Jersey City, N.J. For my entire life, I have struggled with the identity of my own culture. To date back to a speech given in a sociology class, I have always been culturally ambiguous. This has been both a blessing and a curse.

Growing up not speaking Spanish, I wasn’t “Puerto Rican” enough for the Puerto Ricans. I don’t have dark skin, so I wasn’t “black” enough for the black people. I’m not Caucasian, so I wasn’t “white” enough for the white people. I experienced both the luxury of the mystery that surrounds me when I enter a room, and the curse in which someone can pick up on the “differences” between them and I. “13th” makes me turn inward. It makes me evaluate and digest my own place in society, and what it means to be truly “American.” Am I no more than a statistic, awaiting its eventual place among many in our criminal justice system? Why have so many people from my communities, both black and Hispanic, fallen through the cracks?

van-jones0Following the screening of “13th” at NYFF, I was given the opportunity to ask DuVernay a question. Giving her just a piece of my own background, I asked her about her hopes for the future, and if we would be seeing this in our current generation? I’ve seen too much in my community growing up. People killed, others incarcerated, some living off government assistance, while others are struggling with one of many different kinds of addiction. “13th” analyzes the perception of these individuals in our community, teamed with media, and the deliberate undertones of our political leaders.

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“13th” is the very first documentary to ever open the New York Film Festival. It’s a brilliant decision. From an awards standpoint, the film obviously emerges as one of the key and apparent frontrunners for Oscar’s Documentary Feature prize. It needs to be taken several steps further. “13th” should undoubtedly be considered and nominated for Best Director and Best Picture of the year. With an expanded lineup where anywhere between five and 10 films can be nominated, the Academy should be implored to make such a decision. No woman of color has ever won the Documentary Feature prize at the Academy Awards. How timely and reflective would it be for awards groups to embrace the film on a massive level?

“13th” is the most important film to see in 2016. It’s probably the most important film you’ll ever see. It should be a requirement for not only cinema lovers, but anyone who claims to be for equality. DuVernay shows us that nobody’s hands are clean. We all carry some blame. The beauty in the film is the hope that there’s still a chance, and an opportunity, for us to fight back. Not with fists, bricks or violence, but with intellect, compassion and love.

“13th” is distributed by Netflix and will be available for streaming on Oct. 6.

GRADE: (★★★★)

About Clayton Davis

Clayton Davis is the esteemed Editor and Owner of AwardsCircuit.com. Born in Bronx, NY to a Puerto Rican mother and Black father, he’s been criticizing film and television for over a decade. Clayton is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association where he votes and attends the kick off to the awards season, the Critics Choice Awards. He’s also an active member of New York Film Critics Online, International Press Academy, Black Reel Awards, and the Broadcast Television Journalists Association. Clayton has been quoted and appeared in various outlets that include The New York Times, CNN.com, Variety, Deadline, Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg Television, AOL, Huffington Post, Bloomberg Radio, The Wrap, Slash Film, and the Hollywood Reporter.
  • Tee

    This is an astounding amount of praise, I was expecting you to bust out a five start tbh lol.

    • Jonathan

      Awards Circuit reviews are out of four – so Clayton gave it 100%.

      • Tee

        I know- hence the “lol” at the end

        • Jonathan

          Oops read it wrong lol

  • Joey Magidson

    This is a really great doc. Almost certainly the one to beat at the Oscars now, in Best Documentary Feature.