Ava DuVernay’s “13th” plays like a filmed think piece about racial injustice we’ve heard far too many times.


13th PosterI only barely watched Ava DuVernay’s film “13th,” just shy of 15 minutes to be exact, because it’s only barely a documentary. It’s more like a filmed think piece stretched to feature length. That’s not to say I don’t agree with DuVernay’s facts or assertions. I also agree there’s an urgent need to address the criminal justice flaws and the systemic racism that African Americans are faced with every day. It’s just, thanks but no thanks; I’ve already read this piece.

DuVernay doesn’t open “13th” with a personal anecdote but a fact recited by Barack Obama. “Think about that,” he says. Just imagine the staggering nature of this statistic on its face without much context. He’s explained that 25 percent of the world’s prison population is in America. Then some talking heads start unpacking that statement and rapidly spin it into a revisionist history of everything you thought you knew about America. They then explain the 13th Amendment contains a semantic loophole that effectively makes slavery legal, and in no time flat, they arrive at the conclusion that “The Birth of a Nation” single handedly shaped Americans’ perception of black people as criminals for generations to come. All in under 15 minutes!

It’s like reading Salon’s Twitter feed and finding nothing but depressing headlines that tell you the way the world really is. For the first 15 minutes, DuVernay doesn’t even find it necessary to identify whose speaking on camera. You might recognize some of them, but all that’s important is that they’re speaking the truth!

They’re not even talking at you. DuVernay positions the camera at such a distance and so far off center that they’re talking past you. Sometimes the camera is even behind the speaker. Their ideas are just so far ahead of you. Try and keep up.

If this was an online think piece, I would’ve at this point scrolled to the end to see how much more there was. Wait, there are how many more pages? I see everyone sharing it on Twitter, so it must be one of those “important” stories I have to finish reading. “13th” was nominated for an Oscar, so it must be significant, but with a movie as brainy and talkative as this, who is this movie really for?

Just like that think piece, it’s okay if you don’t finish it. There are other more personal and more emotionally poignant stories about racial injustice out there. There’s the Oscar-winning “O.J. Made in America,” which actually is eight hours long but doesn’t feel like it. There’s even DuVernay’s “Selma,” as modern and relevant a period biopic as you’re likely to see.

But “13th?” I get the gist.

Note: I will not be offering a star rating because I did not finish the film.