'13th' Review: Damning Doc on Racist Prison System Deserves an Oscar

Ava DuVernay's history-lesson indictment on "new slavery" – the mass incarceration of African-Americans – is a major wake-up call

Ava DuVernay's '13th' – a history-lesson indictment on mass incarceration of African-Americans – is a major wake-up call. Read our four-star review. Credit: Netflix

Note to the Academy: The Oscar for this year's Best Documentary belongs to 13th, Ava DuVernay's incendiary, indelible and indispensable document about the myth of racial equality in America. As we all learned in school, the 13th amendment – enacted on Jan. 31, 1865 – abolished involuntary servitude in these United States. Like hell it did. There was a loophole, which basically said no servitude "except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." Translation: If you're white and rich enough to afford a lawyer, no problem, If you're a minority with nothing, you're fucked. Welcome to the era of mass criminalization and the prison industrial complex, where African-American inmates are forced into unpaid manual labor by a systemic corporate culture that profits from human bondage. Slavery is alive and well. And hot damn, do profiteers want it to continue.

DuVernay, with academic precision and fervent heart, marshals the evidence. Her talking heads, from Angela Davis to (yikes!) Newt Gingrich, illuminate the journey with blistering clarity. Yes, we're heard some of this before, but only half listening, only half considering the appalling implications. DuVernay, as she has with her feature films Selma and Middle of Nowhere, makes it impossible to turn away. Her film goes by in a riveting rush, but astonishes in every frame with its ferocity and feeling. The archival footage is horrific, from a clip from D.W. Griffith's 1915 race-demonizing, rape-baiting The Birth of a Nation to Donald Trump getting all nostalgic about "the good old days" when black protestors at rallies would get a solid police bashing and be "carried out on a stretcher." One clip, showing a black marcher during the civil-rights era getting his hat repeatedly knocked off his head by a white mob, will leave you beyond tears. And the hatred is only growing. These days, there’s a new code name for police shootings of unarmed blacks: law and order.

DuVernay has molded her doc into a living history of slavery as an institution that won’t quit. Her voice, heard through a chorus of other committed voices, is a wake-up call none of us can afford to ignore. Don’t think it can't happen here – look around, it is happening. 13th, available in theaters and on Netflix, is one for the cinema time capsule, a record of shame so powerful that it just might change things. Godspeed.