I want to stay away from the obvious cliches when I judge this film on its own and within the long view of Ava Duvernay’s career (‘this is an important film’), so I’ll try to find the right words at the end…
The conceit of this documentary is that while the 13th Amendment abolished slavery…it really didn’t. The U.S. Civil War (like pretty much every other war, ever) was about economics. The Southern economic system was destroyed, so…something had to replace it. And as a side note, all those blacks who that economic system was completely dependent on…what about them?
So that’s your starting point in this, incredible film. Writing it down as I am now really doesn’t do it justice, but you get a five star ‘the History of Black America’ story in under two hours that rarely, if ever, moves too far away from its thesis. You want a quick lesson in why (the original) Birth of a Nation is so important for all the wrong reasons? It’s in here. You want to know how coded language has evolved from nigger to ‘crack users’ to ‘thugs’ over the years? It’s covered pretty well here. You want a quick political science lesson in how Nixon won over the South to the Republican party, and how the Clintons figured out how to neutralize that advantage? It’s in here.
It’s history but make no mistake, this is a ‘film’ as well. It’s art. The use of graphics to illustrate how the prison rate keeps escalating, the use of hip hop to guide us through the political eras (I reflexively threw up my fist when Public Enemy came on.) The editing is superb; in the early sections you will question why aren’t black people constantly boiling over in anger, in the present day Black Lives Matter section, I had to look away as the film makes you relive Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and the still growing list of boys who’ve been killed for being.
I have no inside information on if Ava even cares about industry awards, but as I write this either this film or the more L.A. centric story about race, ‘O.J. Made in America’ is the frontrunner for Best Documentary. What I can say is that this is in my opinion the best film she’s directed to this point in here in her career by far.
Streaming on Netflix. Watch it.