Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary ‘13th’ takes a circuitous journey that starts with slavery and ends in the same place. Although we’ve been led to believe slavery has been illegal for years, ‘13th’ suggests that may all be an illusion.
The movie title refers to the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which officially abolished slavery in America, and was ratified on December 6, 1865, after the conclusion of the American Civil War. The amendment states:
“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.”
It’s that exception in red that serves as the basis of DuVernay’s documentary.
What she presents, in a nutshell, is how blacks have been targets for crimes designed just for blacks, as far back as the amendment. Special crimes have been invented just for blacks so we can be arrested and convicted, sent to prison, work camps, or some other form of suppression and control like parole and probation.
DuVernay cleverly marches through a timeline of history from the 13th Amendment to the present day presenting the tactic of the moment used to exaggerate the number of blacks being arrested and convicted.
The story is told by a lot of smart people speaking on the creation and creators of each of the strategic tactics that have been employed over the years to boost the number of blacks arrested.
With the increased number of inmates comes the increased number of prisons and DuVernay provides an important lesson on the players involved in the business of prison expansion. The documentary ends during the presidential campaign of 2016 where Hillary Clinton appears to want to address the prison issue and Donald Trump is calling for more Law & Order.
DuVernay attempts to cover a lot of territory in 100 minutes which could have easily continued for another hour or two. Every important topic was touched on but some got more attention than others. There’s always something left on the cutting room floor when time and money are a factor.
In my opinion, 75% of the documentary is straight from Michelle Alexander’s ‘The New Jim Crow’ book. It’s only fitting that Ms. Alexander was a major contributor on camera in the documentary.
Another major figure was Bryan Stevenson who wrote the great book, ‘Just Mercy,’ which goes into great detail about that impact of black and brown juveniles being charged as adults. Very little was discussed on that topic in the documentary but Mr. Stevenson’s input from his experience representing blacks who have been wrongly charged but left to rot in jail for years, was valuable.
It was great to see Shaka Senghor, author of ‘Writing My Wrongs,’ featured in the documentary. He didn’t get much time but his story is an honest portrayal of a man who did commit a crime but suffered from the cruelty of extended time in solitary confinement. Not much was mentioned in the documentary on that.
Despite the many other great contributors, the final mention has to go out to Van Jones. He’s that guy we don’t hear enough from. I loved how he put it all in perspective in a clear, concise manner.
For the first time in a long time, after watching ‘13th’, I longed for my college days where we’d sit around a camp fire (not really) and discuss the type of things that was brought out in ‘13th’. I served as president of our Black Cultural Society for a couple years and we were far from a militant group, but we were a small group of students who cared about black culture and used each other to create that space on a campus not accommodating to those needs.
Even now, I don’t run into a lot of folks my age (mid 50s) who read the books I read. But, it’s great to connect with the young men and women who are fully engaged like I was back in the day. They are hungry for this type of knowledge and appreciate sitting down, Tweeting, Facebooking, and sharing opinions and knowledge.
DuVernay’s ‘13th’ is a great jumping off piece to start the conversation. It’s not a complete lesson, but it’s a tremendous starting point that covers a lot of ground to help keep the conversation alive.
It’s been a week since I’ve watched ‘13th’ and it’s interesting to see the reaction of people who are catching up with it. I wish everyone had the benefit of reading ‘The New Jim Crow’ first. Doing so makes the documentary less overwhelming because many of the concepts would already be familiar.
But, if you enjoyed ‘13th’ and found it overwhelming, watch it again or join one of the many discussion groups popping up all over the place.
‘13th’ is a story that will be referred to for many years to come.