Reading Time: 4 minutes
Black prisoners from decades past, as seen in "13th"
Black prisoners from decades past, as seen in “13th”

If you’re like me, your takeaway lessons from high school history were that Abe Lincoln and the Union Army put an end to slavery, and aside from some pesky issues left behind by Jim Crow, all was thereafter fair and equal between whites and people of color.

Only later life experience, coupled with deeper personal delving into history and sociology, gave the lie to this juvenile perception.  Somehow, too, growing up in Baltimore, I overlooked how most black people lived in dodgier neighborhoods than me and didn’t go to schools as nice as mine.

Hopefully, 13th, a new documentary by Selma director Ana DuVernay, will give many viewers a reality check on ethnic inequalities past and present.  Though its graphic footage of the brutalization of black bodies in the 20th and 21st Centuries make this film suitable only for those of middle teenage years and older, my wish is that 13th will raise awareness of people younger than I was, when I finally discerned that everything wasn’t made all better by the coming of MLK and the end of Jim Crow.

DuVernay’s documentary draws its name from the constitutional amendment that put an end to slavery.  Except that’s not quite true, because the 13th Amendment has a loophole allowing involuntary servitude for those convicted of crime.  The key thesis running through 13th is that those in power have exploited that clause to craft new forms of slavery and keep black people underfoot in perpetuity.

DuVernay and her co-writer/editor Spencer Averick make their case strongly and upsettingly through a combination of knowledgeable talking heads, archival photographs, 20th Century film footage, and more recent audio and video recordings.  Immediately after the Civil War and into the 1900s, we witness how Southern law enforcement and savvy politicians swelled prisoner ranks and provided cheap labor by arresting black folks of all ages on penny ante charges such as loitering, thereby swelling the ranks of chain gangs.

The myth of the dangerous black criminal also emerged around this time, aided by popular entertainment like D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.  This artful piece of cinematic revisionist history from 1915 valorized the KKK and gave us a heroine who would leap to her death from a cliff rather than face violation by a rapist in blackface.  (Never mind that the statistically accurate narrative of the South in the decades before and after this film would be of white men raping black women with impunity.)

In speedy fashion, DuVernay and Averick connect the dots from this cruel past into America’s present.  Beginning with Nixon’s “war on crime” and his focus on criminalizing addiction rather than treating it, 13th briskly takes us past Reagan’s stiffer penalties for black-predominant crack use as opposed to mostly white cocaine snorting.  Soon enough, we’re up to Bill Clinton’s “three strikes and you’re out” and mandatory minimum sentencing.  All the while, the deceptive pressure to plea bargain and unattainable bail fees make it more likely that poor people of color will end up in jail.  As one commentator in 13th phrases it, “Wealth, not culpability, affects outcomes.”

These policies, as well as the profit motive goading our private prison industry, have swollen the ranks of the incarcerated seven-fold since the days of Nixon and given America the world’s highest imprisonment rate.  And black males are disproportionately represented in our jails, making up 6.5% of our general population, but 40.2% of our prison numbers.

Angela Davis, interviewed in "13th"
Angela Davis, interviewed in “13th”

DuVernay not only brings us up to date on the state of our jails – whose unwilling labor force gives us cheap Idaho potatoes, Victoria’s Secret lingerie, and J.C. Penney slacks – but also shows how the automatic stamping of black people as criminal elements has persisted.  Angela Davis reminds us on camera that even MLK and other peaceful protesters against the racist status quo were named as terrorists and public dangers by the FBI and local police.  From there, it’s no great cognitive leap for 13th to consider the pushback by “law and order” advocates when the killing of unarmed people of color stirs up an outcry and spurs the rise of Black Lives Matter.

Frankly, I was relieved by the power and proficiency of Ana DuVernay’s work in this documentary.  Despite its compelling subject matter, I was unimpressed with 2014’s Selma, finding her direction there amateurish in places, unaided by a sluggish tempo that was only rescued by a couple of affecting set pieces.

The flaws in 13th are far fewer and less significant.  The challenging task of keeping track of the steady flow of commentators (historians, sociologists, politicians, and activists) is not helped by failing to name them early on or handily reminding us of their significance further along.  Additionally, Spencer Averick has an annoying editing tic of suddenly and repeatedly changing our viewing angle on the interview subjects (3 seconds facing the camera, 3 seconds in profile, etc.) for no discernible reason.  Mr. Averick, please see your physician and find out if Adderall is right for you.

Near the end of 13th, however, all editing sins were absolved when DuVernay and Averick brilliantly cross-splice mid-20th Century footage of white on black aggression with audio and video from contemporary political rallies.  I sucked in my breath both in horror and wonderment as I watched this memorable melding of film craft and truth-telling.

13th is clearly made with an eye to next month’s elections, as it contrasts the campaign rhetoric of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.  While the activists interviewed rightly voice skepticism about election year promises, it’s easily apparent why people of color overwhelmingly favor Clinton.  At least she’s offering criminal justice reform, while Trump’s emphasis on “law and order” hearkens back to Nixon’s strategy to entice Southern whites to his side.

One of DuVernay’s interview subjects states that “the opposite of criminalization is humanization.”  And for the long run, this humanizing effect of 13th is more significant than any effort to influence election outcomes.  Please see this important film.

4 out of 5 stars

(Parents’ guide:  For the reasons cited earlier in my review, 13th has been rated “TV-MA.”)

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