13th (2016)

Dir. Ava DuVernay. Starring Michelle Alexander, Van Jones, Angela Davis

When was the first time you were ashamed to be an American? I don’t just mean hurt, or looked askance, or felt a trigger of anxiety in your gut, but I mean just honest-to-goodness shame, the kind that horrifies you and makes you so angry you can’t see straight and when you’re done feeling all that you’re left with that feeling that even though you didn’t do it – some other American did it – it’s your problem too.

For me, that moment was when Abu Ghraib became public. When I was thirteen, pictures of the torture and humiliation and war crimes effected at the prison by American soldiers came into my house in the copy of Newsweek we subscribed to. I remember sitting at the kitchen table and opening up to that article and seeing those photographs and feeling absolutely sick and angry, for in those photos it could hardly be clearer that the prisoners were human beings and that the American soldiers smiling and laughing and posing were too, and that was the entire problem. I had never been in favor of the war on terror in its various forms – in my pre-teen years up through high school, I probably could have best described myself as an evangelical libertarian – but something about soldiering still seemed relatively noble to me. That ended in my kitchen that day. I was so mad that I wished that those soldiers would die on the spot; it was one of the first times, maybe the very first time, where I recognized that the punishment those people deserved would never come, even if they were successfully prosecuted.

Looking back on it I have no idea why that was the first time I ever felt that particular shame about being an American. By the time I was thirteen, I had spent seven or eight years learning as much about the Civil War as a normal elementary schooler could; those visions of a Christian soldier I had came from Union soldiers whose sacrifice had helped free the slaves. Yet somehow slavery, as much as I intellectually understood the practice, felt much more distant; slavery disturbed me conceptually, but it was also too many decades removed from a seven-year-old or a ten-year-old or a thirteen-year-old for me to understand how horrific it was at a human level. Abu Ghraib was so much more immediate than a slave auction.

I wish to God that 13th had been around when I was younger, and I hope to God that little white children will watch it over and over again and learn what it is to be ashamed of your country.

13th can be split fairly neatly into two parts, both of them drawing on how racial animus dictates the systemic, disproportionate imprisonment of people of color (and African-Americans in particular) in this country. In the first part, DuVernay tackles the history of how mass incarceration came to be. The short answer is that racism has been the guiding motive for a number of a policies in this country which have been absolutely destructive. From using black men, arrested on meaningless charges, to build roads in the late 1800s, to Nixon’s “law and order” quotes which were code words for “contra liberals, ex. blacks and hippies,” to Reagan’s war on drugs, to the Clintons’ superpredators: all of these were created by white people for white people, to find new ways of ensuring that people of color would never get on equal footing. Statements like that usually create some level of skepticism; intuitively, it requires an anti-POC Illuminati reigning on high above not just the government of the United States, but above all of its other institutions and corporations. But even a moment of thought reveals the truth in that declaration. It’s not people who rule the rest of us strangely, but it’s a commonality in a significant majority of the ruling class: racism. 13th discusses how Nixon’s team recognized that after the Civil Rights movement, one could hardly attack black people outright anymore. Using “law and order” as a screen, they managed to attract disaffected white people in the South who understood the subliminal intentions; hearing Donald Trump talk about “law and order” should scare all of us, but especially people of color, to death. (Judging on how he’s polling with those groups, they appear to understand what he’s talking about just as much as the old school racists in Appalachia do.) The war on drugs turned into a war on crack cocaine, and crack was used disproportionately by African-Americans; white people using cocaine faced far less punishment. The mandatory minimums that people like Bill Clinton pushed in an effort to score points against Republicans after decades of hearing that Democrats were “soft on crime” caused a geometric spike in American prisoners. And where 1 in 17 white men will land in prison at some point, 1 in 3 black men will as well. (I had an idea of the latter statistic. It’s horrifying to think that 1 of 17 anythings will spend time in the correctional system. 1 in 3 is numbing.)

The second part of the film has to do with present-day iterations of mass incarceration. DuVernay’s interviews do a very good job of detailing how the tide has turned. Imprisoning people (for massive profit, as the talking heads skillfully detail) has come under scrutiny in the last half-decade or so, and the private firm that’s responsible for the Stand Your Ground legislation that got George Zimmerman off has refocused itself. Rather than looking for jail sentences in and of themselves, it’s enough to redefine how much someone should have to put up for bail, or how we can imprison people without sending them to trial. The story of Kalief Browder is discussed in some detail; Browder killed himself last year at age 22. His mental health had deteriorated after three years at Rikers Island, under constant abuse from guards and fellow prisoners, waiting for his court date to come. Browder had refused to take a plea deal, willing to be on his innocence in court. It just didn’t come for years. Browder is highly unusual, as most people do the smart thing per the Prisoner’s Dilemma; Browder took a chance and, in the long run, lost. He was uncommonly brave.

You spend most of the documentary waiting for it to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement and the deeply interrelated set of recorded shootings of unarmed black men. It’s the documentary’s one issue, at least from a structural point of view, because it takes the end of 13th away from its central thesis about mass incarceration. It’s also the most powerful part of the documentary. 13th shocks and infuriates with the best of them, and it informs and persuades to boot. It convinces you (assuming that this is new to you) that there’s something deeply wrong with the system, and that the something is racism, a “cancer” (in the words of at least two interviewees) which has yet to be removed.

But the terrible, terrible emotion of watching black man after black man killed by police is beyond language. (13th actually does a good job at questioning whether or not we should consume the image of murdered black men over and over, if we may not internalize it to the detriment of that community.) It was hard enough to watch the video of Eric Garner or Tamir Rice or Laquan McDonald in the moment. I purposefully stayed away from the video of Philando Castile, but there it was in this documentary, after the videos of so many others shot down, and it was as bad as I dreamed it would be. I’ve never seen the videos connected together in that order, a nightmare playlist of state-sponsored murder, and there’s a limit to what any feeling person can swallow within a minute and a half. Trust me, it feels much longer.

It’s a crowded documentary, sure. This is not The Thin Blue Line, which takes the time to know everything about a single case. 13th aims for an impossible storytelling goal: provide an overview of systemic racism in the past fifty years, with nods back to Reconstruction and Jim Crow, and then look at the present and depict the blueprint of how systemic racism functions right here and now. Is it comprehensive? How could it be? A documentary like this isn’t telling a laser-focused story so much as it is trying to win broken hearts and minds, and on that count, it succeeds.


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