Before you sit down to watch 13th, Ava DuVernay’s new film about mass incarceration, take off your historian’s hat. This is no scholarly lesson about the past. Instead, DuVernay takes us on an exploration that she hopes will, first and foremost, shock. Once it has your attention, 13th mobilizes the power of the visual and the sonic, along with human stories, to teach about hope and our capacities to make change in a way that no historical text could.
13th is foremost an act of visual politics. It is cultural resistance. When the narrator explains how images can “shock,” we learn some of what the film hopes to accomplish. The shock of horror, of recognition, of awakening to a system of racialized, inhuman degradation is what the film hopes to provoke. There is a history to this, DuVernay reminds us. Like anti-slavery advocates who used gruesome images – the former slave Gordon and his scarred back – 13th makes us feel as well as think our way to action. As the civil rights movement relied upon images broadcast on the nightly news – young protesters set upon by fire hoses and police dogs – so too does 13th bring the inhumanity of mass incarceration into living rooms, where the sight may mobilize us. This is an African American tradition that historian Aston Gonzalez explains has its roots in the prints and photographs of early 19th century black artist-activists.