13th: Birth of a Scheme


A documentary that uses the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the one that abolished slavery, as a starting point for a discussion of how African-Americans are still subjected to racial injustice in the United States, may look on paper like a concern mainly for what conservatives would call ”bleeding-heart liberals”. But it does present an issue that has found bipartisan interest in recent years, zeroing in on the idea of mass incarceration, the term used to describe the rapid growth of the U.S. prison population over four decades.

Conservatives have their small-government (and possibly religious) reasons to oppose mass incarceration. Still, I can’t imagine that those who went along with Trump in 2016 will agree with much here.

When the 13th Amendment freed thousands of slaves, and the Civil War had wrecked the Southern economy, those states needed to rebuild somehow. The despicable but ingenious idea of turning even the most minor of offenses into crimes punishable by forced labor meant that Southern authorities could make a huge number of recently ”freed” slaves go back to the fields in chains. Over the following decades, Jim Crow laws guaranteed that whites and blacks were kept apart. When the epic The Birth of a Nation premiered in 1915, it helped strengthen the Ku Klux Klan’s presence in the South.

During the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Richard Nixon won the White House thanks to the support of Southern Democrats, targeting issues like drugs and crime. The result was harsher sentencing and the prison population began to grow. Twenty years later, pressured by a string of losses to Republicans, Democrats under Bill Clinton jumped on the bandwagon with a crime bill that sent black men to prison in dramatically greater numbers.

A nice piece of paper
With help from activists, academics and politicians, the filmmakers reach the conclusion that the 13th Amendment is a nice piece of paper, but in reality white America has always come up with ways to keep the black man down. May seem too radical, but many interesting examples and facts are presented. The use of drugs has been unnecessarily harshly punished over the years, stacking prisons with non-white males since the use of drugs is widespread in poorer minority neighborhoods. American corporations have benefited from private prisons and the cheap minority labor they have provided.

The film also addresses the absurd militarization of the police; fear-mongering has always been one of Republicans’ sharpest tools and DuVernay and her team spot a connection all the way back to how D.W. Griffith saw the black man in The Birth of a Nation. Conservatives would say that the film is too manipulative, but it’s easy to see how their predecessors continuously manipulated the system out of fear of anyone who isn’t white. Sometimes Democrats have (thoughtlessly) helped in that process. DuVernay, who last made the Martin Luther King drama Selma (2014), takes skillful advantage of historic footage and puts her interview subjects in prison-like milieus; bars and bricks dominate. 

One of the film’s most upsetting moments is footage from Donald Trump’s hate-filled rallies during his presidential campaign, where supporters attacked black activists. Racism can be subtle, but in 2016 nothing was subtle anymore and the film makes a very clear, unforgettably visual comparison with footage from days decades ago that we hoped were gone. Black lives have never mattered all that much.

13th 2016-U.S. 100 min. Color-B/W. Produced by Spencer Averick, Howard Barish, Ava DuVernay. Directed by Ava DuVernay. Screenplay: Spencer Averick, Ava DuVernay.

Trivia: Among those interviewed in the film are academics, politicians and media personalities like Van Jones, Cory Booker, Angela Davis, Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist.

BAFTA: Best Documentary.

Last word: “It was important for me to make sure that we included people on both sides of the aisle, so to speak. I know what I think, but I’m interested in knowing what everyone thinks. Everyone who I asked to be in the documentary said yes, and they were included because I wanted to hear their side of the story. I was eager to sit down with them and pick their brains. I spoke with every subject for two hours, and the most intriguing parts of those conversations are in the film.” (DuVernay, Time)



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