You might have let yourself act surprised as the waters have risen and the floods have come. But you can't anymore, not after 13th, Ava DuVernay's kinetic cine-history of the criminalization of American blackness. Few films shake and astonish like this one, even though nothing in it should surprise.
Here, in its fleet first minutes, is the headwater of our moment of police shootings and mandatory-minimum sentences: the prison boom, just after the Civil War, when freed slaves were jailed on pretenses and put right back to work rebuilding the South. With terrifying vintage headlines ("Negro Boy Was Killed for Wolf Whistle") and photos of lynchings, DuVernay shows the storms that have always raged -- and that much of white America prefers to pretend have nothing to do with today's bad weather.
The first voice we hear in the film is Obama's: "The United States is home to 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of the world's prisoners." For 100 brisk, despairing minutes, DuVernay exposes the historical continuity of anti-black law and order, that unrelenting abuse of black bodies in the name of white safety. She draws bold correspondence between back then and right the hell now, tracing the incremental and systemic cruelties and stupidities that have, over decades, officially institutionalized that fearful white impulse -- and dressed it up as tough-on-crime common sense.
DuVernay's archival footage is fresh, crisp, often either thrilling or horrifying, the images layered and juxtaposed with the purposeful density of a Public Enemy track. Her talking heads -- Van Jones, Jelani Cobb, Angela Davis, Bryan Stevenson, Henry Louis Gates Jr. -- lay bare the history in quick piercing clips, an urgent mosaic of hard truths.