Wednesday, October 26, 2016

13TH: Stark & Searing

Ava Duvernay's new Netflix documentary, 13TH, is a shattering expose on mass incarceration, slavery, and America's continuing struggle with racial inequality. It is a powerful movie, one that will make you both angry and contemplative, and showcases how insidious and pervasive institutional racism can be.

13TH begins by outlining the language of the 13th Amendment, which emancipated slaves but contained a clause that has led us to where we are today. That clause is "except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." The result was that while African Americans had been freed, they were now increasingly found guilty of petty, inconsequential crimes, so that they could be re-enslaved under the aegis of the prison system and continue with a life of indentured servitude with their rights stripped away.

It is a simple yet horrifying thesis, and one that Duvernay effectively proves in 100 minutes as we hear from prominent black thinkers and civil rights activists. Each participant is a thoughtful, articulate speaker, laying out some powerful truths and destroying pervasive lies. At times it is heartbreaking to hear how they recognize that their own communities have bought into the prejudices laid out by the white majority, so that black people start thinking of their own as "super predators."

As we progress through history, D. W. Griffith's 1915 film The Birth of a Nation comes under scrutiny for its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan and perpetuation of the criminal Negro who is a threat to the nation's white women. We learn about Nixon's rhetorical war on drugs, made literal by Reagan, and how it was intended as a war on minorities and the disenfranchised. We watch as the number of prisoners skyrocket as the prison system becomes privatized and Bill Clinton imposes mandatory minimums and harsh sentencing laws through his 1994 crime bill. Until we reach our present state, where America houses 25% of the world's prison population despite only housing 5% of the total population.

Duvernay's direction is impeccable, with a perfect blend of inspired imagery, powerful music, intelligent discussion, and healthy debate. She and writer-editor Spencer Averick present their case confidently and clearly, leaving no room for doubt but plenty of room for rage and introspection. 13TH is a masterclass in documentary filmmaking, a reminder that this format can provide a world of education in under two hours. After watching it, you will have a better understanding of what African Americans have endured, from slavery, to Jim Crow, to the Civil Rights movement, to Black Lives Matter. It should be required viewing for all children and adults, to understand where we started, how we got here, and how much further we have to go. 

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