There’s something so satisfying to me about watching a courtroom drama. I love noble defense lawyers who fight for innocent clients, or steadfast, truth-seeking juries like the one in Twelve Angry Men.
But did you know that 97% of criminal cases never make it to a trial? The majestic doors of the courtroom, which promise justice to all who enter, are never opened to most people who are arrested and charged of crimes. The United States now imprisons an estimated 2.3 million inmates - the highest rate of incarceration of any country in the world. One reason for that is buried somewhere I found surprising: in the 13th amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
That’s right - the one that freed the slaves.
Ava DuVernay’s (I Will Follow; Selma) new documentary 13TH takes a step back from the current racial tensions in the U.S. and traces the tumultuous story of black America starting in 1865 when the states ratified the 13th amendment:
"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."
Plenty of movies have focused on the “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude...shall exist” part of the amendment. This time, with the aid of prominent African American scholars, teachers, authors, and activists, DuVernay places “except as punishment for crime” under the microscope.
When it comes to Black Lives Matter, debates over “stop and frisk” policing, or even Beyonce’s Lemonade - we’ve got to step way, way back to get a clear picture.
The first prison boom in the US happened (guess when?) immediately following the Civil War. Interviewees like Van Jones (attorney and author) and Senator Cory Booker explain how newly freed black citizens were regularly arrested and imprisoned on charges like loitering and vagrancy. Fear of the Other created a monster in the black man: he was a threat; sex-hungry, powerful, bestial.
13TH continues its journey into the 60’s, through Civil Rights and the years of Jim Crow. It shows how continued white anxiety over black bodies made its way into new political language of being “tough on crime” and fighting a “war on crime” and a “war on drugs” during Richard Nixon’s presidency. Nixon’s “Law and Order” push was the beginning of superhigh numbers of mass incarceration in the U.S, although the metaphorical “wars” became a reality with Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s. By the time Bill Clinton took office in the 90’s, these “wars” had become an unstoppable force in politics. Militarized police. Mandatory minimums. Exploding prison population. Seeds planted for the news stories we see today, in 2016.
DuVernay allows several wise, learned women to take the lead in walking us through the tough issues in this documentary. Women like Michelle Alexander, who has written one of the most important books in decades, The New Jim Crow. Her book takes a piercing look at mass incarceration, and her steady, consistent voice through 13TH is a gentle, dignified guiding star along the painful story. Another is Angela Davis, a whipsmart political activist who grew up in the violence of Birmingham, Alabama.
Growing up, I remember hearing adults around me discuss this question - where are the black fathers? We always knew they were in prison, of course. What I never heard in that conversation, growing up, was that my parents and their white peers probably bent and broke the law in many of the exact same ways. What I never heard, growing up, was what a shame it was that a generation of white CEOs were snorting cocaine in the privacy of their offices, while their black peers had been imprisoned for crack possession. What I never heard, growing up, was that it’s no wonder this country had a generation of black fathers behind bars, since the black grandfathers were lynched, refused the vote, and treated like second class citizens by their own government.
The figures featured in 13TH present these, and many other ideas and questions. Perhaps the most striking, subtle way DuVernay frames the film is through use of hip hop and rap music and lyrics to introduce each new section. She highlights lyrics from songs like “Reagan” by Killer Mike and “Don’t Believe the Hype” by Public Enemy, which frames African American disenfranchisement in a visceral way. The film’s use of music, in addition to its clean editing and powerful use of historical videos and photographs, puts it in a class above most documentaries of its kind.
I think this documentary has the potential to spark a lot of context for folks who want to get a better understanding of our current racial relations in America.
Systems of oppression tend to reinvent themselves, according to 13TH. Is there a way to move past them? Will our slice of history truly bend toward justice? Ava DuVernay has some ideas. Watch 13TH and see what you think of them.