Framing black history from even many liberal white perspectives, the horrors of slavery and the political and systematic injustices black Americans come to face today come across as two separate, non-equivalent events. It’s a separation that allows the white majority to relegate our self-evident historical guilt to the past and leave it behind them as a former atrocity. We’ve paid no real atonement, yet presume we are no longer guilty. It’s a prevalent view of history that Ava DuVernay’s expansive essay documentary, 13th (B+), works to singularly dismantle, framing the elaborate American history of racism as what it always was: a single pervasive ideological virus, surviving and destroying black lives any way it can, however overtly or subtly.
To locate the root of our systematic instability, DuVernay and her subjects start at the foundation: The glimmer of hope that emerged out of the slavery-abolishing 13th amendment to the constitution, quietly taken advantage of to slip in a back-handed addendum between the lines. Slavery persists to this day as punishment for a crime, a sentencing which becomes all too unreasonable when inspected up close. Black men became quickly demonized as feral low-lives, abusing the freedom that whites so graciously allowed them. That prejudiced, culturally-sanctioned propaganda is most evident in D.W. Griffith’s persistently praised 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation. We didn’t get to this era of baseless racial profiling out of nowhere. It rests deep in our DNA. DuVernay holds up a meticulous microscope to it.
“This system is built upon the backs of black bodies”, Rutina Wesley’s Nova Bordelon states in DuVernay’s other intensely cathartic work of 2016 cinema, Queen Sugar. Those words exemplify the terror and rage DuVernay brings to her analysis of how the biased, coldly flesh-peddling Prison Industrial Complex was built and expanded upon. This is no small issue gone awry. It’s a brutal, continuous persecution that only becomes more heartbreaking longer it takes root and the more righteously it’s resisted. To simply restate the facts DuVernay’s team expertly assembles doesn’t do full justice to the boiling pot of anguished fury that 13th increasingly feels like.
As we move to the present day, the incredulous election cycle we’re in becomes impossible to ignore, and DuVernay certainly doesn’t let Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton off the hook for not being obviously monstrously bigoted. The former’s catastrophic and wholly devastating “three strikes” and “mandatory minimum sentencing” legislation have proven more damaging and life-destroying that even the volatile rhetoric of Republican presidents Nixon, Reagan and H.W. Bush – W., oddly enough, isn’t touched upon. Hillary’s defense of Bill’s actions, along with her horribly considered “super-predator” labeling, also show that even our ostensible route to salvation is teeming with worrisome inconsistencies.
When it comes to the truly pervasive demon of our political moment, though, there’s no denying it’s Donald Trump, and certainly not after the ingeniously edited treatment DuVernay gives him. We didn’t need archive footage of civil rights protesters being beaten and brutalized for Trump’s boisterous longing for “the good old days” to ring as upsetting, but the back-to-back comparison DuVernay makes renders it as an absolutely horrifying tragedy. This is the sickness that we’ve left the door open for by not condemning even the smallest acts of racial hatred.
As thorough and engrossing a work of historical journalism as 13th is, DuVernay never fails to personal touches to the usually flat model of the talking head shot. Journalists, politicians and activists are rarely shown wholly center-frame, either ushered to the side or kept bottom frame, an empty space weighing overhead. Angela Davis gets perhaps the film’s most eye-popping image: bottom center-frame, dwarfed by a dilapidated train station, yet still powerfully commanding our attention. DuVernay’s stylistic sensibilities may be necessarily reserved here, but it’s in service of a unified testament to the lives lost in defense of and defiance against the institutional racism, incrimination and, in innumerable cases, outright murder, that persists most when we pretend it no longer exists.
For forty minutes, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea (A-) is living as much in denial as it’s main character. We casually come to know brashly introverted Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, as internally tumultuous as ever) in his willfully uneventful life as a janitor in Quincy, MA. He packs his local tenants’ garbage into an increasingly over-capacity dumpster. He seems to lack any social skills whatsoever, turning off both attracted women and irritable tenants with his detached attitude. He’s tuned out, shut down, his only recreational activity the occasional bar brawl. It takes his older brother Joe (an also brash, but sturdier, Kyle Chandler) to bring him back from the brink.
Joe dies, but the aftermath is hardly devastating. Lee awkwardly stumbles through the unreal, artificially consoling hospital environment to go pick up his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Joe’s son sees his dad’s corpse for half a second before exiting the room like he’s checking off a chore from his list. Settling affairs is more of a tedious checklist than a melancholic mourning process, interrupting Patrick’s party conversations about whether Star Trek is good and interrupting Lee’s… emptiness. His conspicuous emptiness, which is only elucidated when the revelation of his former life in the titular hometown when finally unavoidable.
Once we’ve learned what’s eating Lee up, it’s a heart crushing moment so unthinkably devastating, tormenting both viewer and subject, we come to shoulder his emotional load. The cool, detached loveliness that D.P. Jodi Lee Lipes shoots Manchester with comes into haunting perspective. As viewers we naturally wish to challenge Lee, to put him into awkward situations that may open positive doors for him, but here we can barely come to push ourselves past the pain we’ve simply witnessed, short of experience. Lonergan makes Manchester by the Sea an unnervingly communal experience, his attitude bordering between illuminating and merciless, so much so that he literally, and hilariously, comes in to troll his characters at one point.
There’s a clear stake for Manchester by the Sea as a comedy, or at the very least a film about we do or don’t use humor and levity to bear the burden of growing grief. Lee and Patrick do form a classic comic pairing, their frank kinship heightened by their markedly different social aspirations. Patrick’s endearing social rapport is so casually expansive that he has two girlfriends and that’s depicted as a source of adventurous fun, rather than jealous conflict. Lee, meanwhile, can barely handle opening his eyes every morning to the shame of his past life. They’re two relatives who undeniably need each other, yet cannot find a way to stay together without damaging the other.
For compelling drama’s sake, the floodgates of denial Lee’s assembled must come down, and Michelle Williams is on hand to irrevocably erode them. In Lee’s ex-wife Randy, we see another depiction of the different ways depression can defeat a person, her mode of bluntly honest partner in Lonergan’s daunting flashbacks beautifully contrasted by the more slickly styled, emotionally reserved iteration of herself that’s come in the aftermath of her trauma. Where Lee took it as a cure to hollow himself out, she takes it as a cue to remodel. Where she can find a way to cut out the reminders of pain, he is that reminder, and their devastating reunion shows how little they’ve mediated or left behind what’s happened. Their pain never entirely heals. Sometimes it can’t heal at all. The most we can do is to bear it.
A character study defined almost wholly by the character and how surroundings define her, Everything Else (B) is at its core a secluded film. There are no recurring fixtures in the main characters’ life. There’s no startling shift in life circumstances. There is only Dona Flor (Adriana Barazza), a politely embittered low-level government worker in Mexico City who seems to pride herself on weeding out applicants based on the slightest unfavorable detail. “This is wrong, but everything else is okay.” You don’t need it to be verified to realize very quickly, Flor’s best friend is her cat.
There’s very little that’s precious to Flor to unseat her life with, but the one loss she does encumber sets off a ripple effect of loneliness that pushes her reluctantly in towards humanity. In both states, director Natalia Almada deploys a startling formal sense of space and geometry that dramatically enlivens potentially rote, sentimental material. Early on, Flor is defined by sturdy, stubborn separation. She keeps her body reservedly outside the boundaries of others, her legs two twin pillars, obstinate against interaction.
In the film’s latter half, those barriers don’t hold up quite so well. The slight light that echoes across her bed grows more invasive. Her reflection ripples apart in the water of the local swimming pool. At one point she literally blurs into her reflection, the differences between her perceived and actual selves suddenly blur together. If Almada’s dramatic inexperience shows at all – this is her first narrative feature – it’s in the film’s inevitably tidying concluding act, as Flor starts to ameliorate her isolation, in spite her instinctive sense of remove from others. She does abandon the film’s earlier bitter resolve in the process, and the shift doesn’t come off as entirely natural, either, but Barazza manages with each incremental change in her disposition and outlook.