Some of the worst movie-going experiences I’ve had the displeasure of sitting through have been documentary feature films. This isn’t because I hate documentaries; quite the contrary. Documentary filmmaking is often times the most authentic form of filmmaking there is. When one works, it can prove to be more powerful than any other kind of film. Most of the time this is not the case. There’s a tendency among filmmakers who believe they have such an “important” point to be made to take that point and beat their audience over the head with it. The point may in fact be a good one, but it’s hard to notice when it’s whacking you with its self-importance.
This self-importance is often shown by resorting to hysterics and sound clips instead of showing well documented and researched fact. Lazy filmmaking does not help this fact and sadly most documentary films that are accessible to the majority of audiences fall into this category. Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party is a perfect example of a doc from this year that proves my point exactly. It’s a film that mistook prejudice and quick conclusions for fact, becoming a truly torturous experience as well as a complete embarrassment for everyone featured and involved in the making of it.
Not everyone can make a compelling documentary feature. There’s a specific craft to it, not just having “talking heads” regurgitate your point. As with any other kind of narrative feature, there needs to be a structure; a “plot” if being described loosely.
When the surprise announcement came that acclaimed director Ava DuVernay had filmed her next project, 13th, in secret and released it at the New York Film Festival just weeks ago, I was immediately compelled to see it. DuVernay had recently been burned by Hollywood in more than one way. In 2014 her excellent Selma failed to achieve the success that many believed it deserved, myself included. Soon after DuVernay attempted to get into the blockbuster game by working with Marvel on the upcoming Black Panther. This didn’t work out as Marvel purportedly tried to make her part of the “Marvel Machine”, rather than allow her to bring her own unique sensibilities to the project. She ended up parting ways with the studio, claiming “creative differences”.
13th feels like her rebuttal to these preceding events. Instead of telling just some disposable story, she decided to tell her story. She decided to tell a whole community’s story in a way that many have never thought of before.
13th explores the topic of prison labor and how it is the next evolution of “racism” in this country, only DuVernay takes the opportunity to use this platform to address the long and bumpy relationship between the United States of America and its black citizens. She leads into the little known prison topic by showing how all of black history plays a part. Somehow, Ava DuVernay takes one of the broadest topics imaginable and is able to bring it down to one narrative feature. It never feels overstuffed or unfocused. It all feels exactly right and never resorts to hysterics or misplaced logic.
This is the astounding work of a disciplined director and storyteller. Despite the only original footage being the interview pieces, DuVernay juxtaposes these clips with affecting, real imagery and sound design. There are moments when pieces fit together so well that it becomes an enlightening experience as well as an aggravating one. This is a documentary with a bias, yet it never feels ill-informed or skewed. Most importantly, it never becomes a piece of propaganda. The sense of rationality and control from DuVernay is to be applauded.
Ava DuVernay has not only made a great documentary film with 13th, but a socially conscious and respectful piece of art that is essential viewing. What makes it especially vital is her decision to distribute the film via Netflix rather than straight theatrical run so that the largest possible audience can see it. Here is a film that will inspire thoughtful reflection and heated debate alike, but regardless of how audiences receive it, will remain an insightful portrait of today that will be looked back on in years to come. Sorry future documentary feature Oscar contenders: Ava DuVernay now has her golden statue locked in with a vengeance.