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(Ava DuVernay continues to brilliantly bring the struggle for human rights for African-Americans to the fore with her Netflix release 13th. The Oscar Nominated documentary now includes an added bonus conversation between DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey.) 

Back in 2014, director Ava DuVernay seemed poised to make history as the first black woman to received an Oscar nomination for Best Director, for her historical docudrama Selma. Something happened along the way to the voting, however, which was a growing controversy over the film’s ostensibly inaccurate portrayal of our 36th President, Lyndon Baines Johnson. It turns out some people did not like the liberties DuVernay took in crafting her narrative, and while this may not have had an effect on the Academy voters (we’ll never know), it certainly seemed to halt the movie’s momentum, though it still received two nominations: for Best Picture (it didn’t win) and Best Original Song (for which it won). Whatever one thinks about that earlier film and/or the appropriateness of the criticism directed at it, DuVernay is back, with a documentary entitled 13th, which has earned its own nomination for Best Documentary Feature, the first time a film made by a black woman has been nominated in that category. It appears there is no keeping Ava down.

13th takes its title from the 13th amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished slavery. The text of that amendment reads as follows: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Take note of the term “punishment” as DuVernay takes that as the driving force behind her movie, using it as a jumping-off point to examine the rates of incarceration in our country, particularly among African-American men. In a methodical and entirely persuasive presentation of the history of slavery and its aftermath, DuVernay explains how, following the Civil War, the economy of the South in tatters, politicians figured out that the only way to find the cheap labor they needed was to effectively re-enslave large swaths of the population. And so began a pattern of mass arrests of people of color that persists to this day.

DuVernay has enlisted a strong pool of experts to help her build this argument, including scholars, activists and present-day politicians. Among these are Michelle Alexander (my personal favorite, since she’s so blazingly smart), Cory Booker, Angela Davis (as in Angela Davis of the Black Panther Party), Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and . . . Newt Gingrich. That’s right, DuVernay makes a point of including points of view from unexpected sources, all to the great strength of this extraordinary bit of truth telling. Had I seen this film before the end of the year, I would have included it among my Top 10 documentaries, for sure. As it is, there are other good documentaries nominated, as well (there always are, as it is routinely the strongest category, for me), including I Am Not Your Negro, so if Ava loses once more, at least there are other worthy candidates out there. Fortunately for everyone, however, 13th is readily available on Netflix, so whether or not it wins an Oscar, all can see it, and should.

[SPECIAL NOTE: Be sure to also watch the 36-minute conversation between Oprah Winfrey and Ava DuVernay about the making of the film.]

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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