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The 54th-annual New York Film Festival, sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, opened this year with The 13th, a documentary by Ava DuVernay (Selma) on the twisted and complex impact of the constitutional amendment that was supposed to end slavery but instead, by its too careful and even insidious wording, paved the way for the incarceration system that continues to exploit people and communities of color in the United States.

The film made the immediate jump from being the first documentary feature to claim the coveted opening spot at the festival to achieving immediate and complete audience exposure by premiering on Netflix rather than making a standard theatrical run. The timing of this decision reflects a desire by DuVernay to have the issues raised by the film matter in the upcoming election.

Throughout the documentary, interviewees address the idea that we cannot debate questions of police-community relations, economics and public policy without invoking race. In less than two hours, DuVernay makes an astonishing case for the 13th Amendment as a foundation for the currently fractured political landscape. 

Conservatives might be quick to dismiss The 13th as just more progressive propaganda intent on painting a vicious portrait of the political right as cartoonish villains. But the film is not blind to the culpability of liberal politics in creating and/or maintaining this imbalanced system. The legislative thinking behind three strikes, mandatory minimum sentencing and the militarization of police forces arose during the Clinton presidential years of the 1990s. The film recites reams and reams of numbers that tell a gruesome tale, but it is the images that raise far greater alarm. We watch old footage from the Civil Rights era, where racists push and beat non-violent black citizens and police assault pro-civil-rights protesters. We hear how activists back in the day sought to use the power of the media as a weapon, to lay bare these injustices to the world. And then we see the same situations replayed on smartphones and body cameras now, and somehow we still hold onto the same delusion that these images will lead to change. I suppose we will wait and see. 

The 13th is currently streaming on Netflix.