Ava DuVernay transitions from the towering histrionics of “Selma” to something more potent and powerful in “13th.” The title comes from the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution, which we typically understand as what abolished slavery. In the traditional sense of the word, that is true, but DuVernay points to a key phrase in the Amendment that offered those in power a loophole. The Amendment reads as such: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” By carving out an exception for criminal punishment, DuVernay’s film points out, mass incarceration and prison labor became codified in American culture, and a new evolution in slavery was born. Of course, evolution is a poor choice of word for something that fundamentally devolves modern society, but DuVernay and her subjects in this film are pointing to how one form of slavery ended with the 13th, and another one began. This should be required viewing for every American.
In the week or so after it was released on Netflix, one clip from “13th” has made the rounds on social media. It’s of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump talking about how, “In the good ol’ days,” protestors could be handled more roughly by law enforcement, along with soundbites of him telling people at his rallies to “Punch ’em (meaning protestors) in the face,” and how they used to be taken out in a stretcher. He sees himself as the “law and order” candidate in the same way Nixon was a “law and order” president. It’s definitely a powerful moment from the film, necessary to be seen before going to the polls on November 8, but it’s one of many in the film. DuVernay goes through black American history since the Civil War to see how we got from the abolishment of economic slavery to criminal slavery, featuring people on both sides of the political divide, like Senator Cory Booker, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Grover Norquist. We see how the current boom in mass incarceration started in the ’60s and ’70s under Nixon, who used the “war on drugs” and government to go after people protesting war and social inequality, continued under Reagan and Bush before Bill Clinton signed a major crime bill in the ’90s that expanded the problem to heights unheard of, mostly affecting blacks and latinos. We currently have over 2 million people in prison, many for low-level offenses that includes simple drug possession or an inability to pay fines or bail. When the vast majority of criminal cases are ended through plea deal as opposed to trial, simply because the punishments from a trial could be more severe, even when people are innocent of what they are accused of, something is seriously wrong. Now, people on both the right and left want to see reforms made. But will that solve the problems in that loophole in the 13th Amendment, or create new ones that lead to the same things happening? That’s a question everyone needs to find an answer for.
The past couple of years in America have served as an important flashpoint for me personally when it comes to the history of racism, racial inequality and prejudice in this country. DuVernay has played an important part in that lesson with “Selma” and now, “13th.” Her documentary, in particular, has illuminated connections and painful truths I hadn’t hit upon yet, but it’s also reiterated the importance of images in becoming awakened to the issues that led to the Black Lives Matter movement and Colin Kapernick taking a stand by kneeling for the national anthem. It’s the same struggle that led to Rosa Parks sitting in the front of the bus, Martin Luther King Jr. leading that march in Selma, the formation of the Black Panthers, N.W.A. to write a song called “Fuck da Police,” and protests and riots to occur when young black men like Travon Martin, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice lost their lives needlessly, either at the hands of police or civilians who feel empowered by laws like Florida’s “Stand Your Ground,” which permits lethal force if you feel threatened. To these images, DuVernay adds the infamous “Willie Horton” political ad, the rush to judgement of the Central Park 5 by people like the current Republican presidential candidate, and the elevation of the Ku Klux Klan to a force of good D.W. Griffith presented in his landmark film, “Birth of a Nation,” which not only led to a rejuvination of the KKK at the time, but also put the images of the black rapist of white women, and burning crosses, indelibly into an American culture where public lynchings of blacks and minorities (like the Jewish man, Leo Frank, in Georgia) were commonplace, and accepted practice. The images I’ve seen of lynchings are mortifying, but it was one particular one, that of the image of an unrecognizable young boy named Emmett Till, a Chicago boy visiting relatives in the South when he was accused of harassing a white woman, and was beaten and mutilated by racists, that was a jump start to the Civil Rights movement. His mother insisted on a public funeral, and an open casket, so that the world could see what racism in America looked like. Now, it looks quite different, but the results feel the same- young lives ruined because of institutionalized prejudices and an internalized belief that if you’re in prison, you’re automatically guilty and need punished. “13th” shows, quite devastatingly, how unacceptable that should be now, and why saying “All Lives Matter” misses the point of why people are saying “Black Lives Matter.” So long as black lives, and really, anyone suffering under oppressive practices, are marginalized, “All Lives Matter” is simply another form of Jim Crow dehumanization for blacks to endure. No one who cares about our country should accept that. Hopefully, the images Ava DuVernay puts forth in this film will help reform the country once and for all.