Every good civil rights movement needs its cool cucumbers that get you jazzed up and grinning from ear to ear. So when I finally sat down to watch 13th, I was on the lookout for folks delivering total zingers while refusing to let The Man get them down. That prayer is answered about a half hour in when Van Jones responds to an asinine comment from Grover Norquist about the infamous 1988 Willie Horton attack ad with a terse “Thanks, Grover.” Going forward, I would recommend that as a meme-ish stock response to anyone who refuses to acknowledge the part that race plays in the institutional failings of American criminal justice.

As galvanizing as that moment is, it is not where Ava DuVernay ultimately leads us with her documentary survey of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery only to create a new form of slavery. It is a thorough diagnosis of the problem of how American prisons have perpetuated a de facto form of subjugation for people of color. Knowledge is the first step towards fixing a problem, but 13th ends on a bleak note that suggests that this particular social ill might just be too intractable to ever fully remove. Simply put, it’s in the most profitable interests of certain powers to permanently designate as criminal a significant segment of the population. But maybe there is room for some small hope that there could be a chance for a sliver of change. I watched 13th in 2020, amidst the rage of the most intense civil unrest of my lifetime, and it actually seems like some people in power are now actually considering taking revolutionary measures to address the problem. That undoubtedly has to happen if this country wants to work its way out of all the devil’s bargains it’s made.