"13th" Teaches, Touches | WAMC

"13th" Teaches, Touches

Mar 2, 2021

Audrey Kupferberg
Credit WAMC

Someone I know who works in the film industry once told me that if a movie or TV show doesn’t grab you in the first ten minutes, it probably will not grab you at all.  Recently, a number of Netflix and Amazon originals that have been listed among the most popular programs for streaming have not grabbed me.  After watching a couple episodes of such series as Bridgerton and Firefly Lane, I was not left wanting more.  Both are quality productions, the casting is terrific, but the stories are not innovative. Their themes remind me of the the paperback romance novels that were popular from the 1950s through the 1970s.  Harlequin books come to mind.  Barbara Cartland comes to mind, as well.

Certain TV shows never fail to keep me watching, even if I tune in mid-episode.  The Big Bang Theory is one; the conversations of Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, Penny, Amy, and Bernadette as they devour take-out dinners draw me in immediately.  I don’t totally understand their references, but the characters are so well-drawn that I’m captivated. 

A lesser known or at least less-remembered BBC TV show that I find irresistible is Garrow’s Law which ran three seasons from 2009-2011. The series follows actor Andrew Buchan as a character called William Garrow, real-life London-based counsel for the accused from the 1780s through some of the first half of the 19th century. His claim to fame is his work to have an accused person presumed innocent until proven guilty. He became a barrister, a politician and a judge. Alun Armstrong, whom many know from New Tricks, also stars.  The cases are fascinating.  There is an intriguing romantic sub-plot.  Garrow’s Law is an 18th Century form of the Perry Mason series.

Years ago, documentaries used to be considered dry and boring.  The genre was relegated to religious or club meetings and classrooms.  Somehow, since the age of home-viewing came about, documentary films have become fairly popular.  My friend Amy recently recommended a four-year-old feature-length documentary called 13th, a well-informed and beautifully organized study of the incarceration of people of color in the United States from the time of slavery to Black Lives Matter. 

13th was made by Ava DuVernay, who directed Selma.  Duvernay was the first black woman nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for 13th.  The title comes from the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which abolished slavery.  It ended involuntary servitude – except as a punishment for a crime.  That’s what began the unfair imprisonment of blacks; they were arrested unfairly in order to take the place of slaves to keep the economic system of the South going. It was a loophole that led to chain gang labor, factory servitude, and led to the expansion of imprisonments through the decades as the prison system expanded from a government system to a huge, profit-making, capitalist system that has made profits for callous corporations over the years. 

13th is an intelligent study of black peoples’ misery. It covers the rise of the KKK, the illegal tortures and lynchings, the murders of Emmett Till, the four little girls in a Birmingham church, Jim Crow laws, Martin Luther King’s activism, and the rise of the Civil Rights movement. The  administrations of Johnson through Trump are analyzed for the passage of laws which only worsened the plight of unjustly incarcerated black men and women.

13th is a documentary that educates, but it also touches the emotions.  It’s available for home viewing on Netflix.  It certainly grabbed my attention within the first ten minutes, and I believe that that would be true for many viewers.   

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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