To solve our nation’s problems, we must understand their causes, and not just the easy, obvious causes that are most convenient to solve. In 13th, a powerful and persuasive new documentary from Selma writer-director Ava DuVernay, there is an explanation for mass incarceration and implicit bias, the twin ailments afflicting our criminal justice system. But our current crisis of overcrowded prisons and police brutality has roots that run deep. DuVernay builds a history of oppression in this country, showing how the evils of slavery were removed by the Civil War only for the routine dehumanizing of people of color to remain a constant in our society. She begins with Reconstruction, as slaves became criminals, locked up or lynched for the simplest of reasons, if any at all. The myth of black criminality was pervasive, a worry that freedom unleashed permission for a people to roam the South unchecked by white power. DuVernay draws a line from the KKK to the prison industrial complex in a smart, complicated, multi-faceted, well rounded, dazzlingly intellectual and undeniably emotional sociopolitical argument.
Here DuVernay, in her non-fiction debut, is working in the tradition of documentarian Adam Curtis (his masterwork, The Power of Nightmares, a stunning recounting of the parallel rise of neo-conservatives and Islamic fundamentalism) and historian Howard Zinn (whose People’s History of the United States viewed the past through how it affected the least among us). Like them, she's synthesizing a vast amount of information, drawing connections, placing old and familiar stories and ideas next to fresh takes and new juxtapositions. It adds up to a history of white racial resentment and poisonous stereotyping as the prime driving forces behind American politics of the last 150 years. What is Jim Crow but an effort to rebuild a mechanism by which to prevent black people from entering white society? What is Nixon’s Southern Strategy but coded messages to whites letting them know the progress of black civil rights will be slowed? What is the War on Drugs, with its lopsided sentencing, but a method to punish people of color more harshly? What about the 1994 omnibus crime bill, privatized prisons, and militarized police forces? The film takes us right to present day, current discussions inevitably informed by the decades of buildup.
DuVernay doesn’t argue that explicit, intentional racism is always the cause of laws’ consequences, but that it’s merely the soup in which we swim. Black people are viewed as criminal at a rate disproportionate to the percentage of actual crime. She reminds us of 1915’s Birth of a Nation codifying the image of dangerous black men, and of the nightly news and tough-on-crime campaign ads far more frequently parading dark skin in front of the camera as code for crime. She shows us Martin Luther King Jr, Malcom X, Angela Davis, Fred Hampton, and many more civil rights leaders and recalls how they were hounded by law enforcement and, in many cases, cut down in their prime. She unflinchingly shows us photographs of lynchings, footage of hoses and dogs deployed on peaceful protestors, of unarmed black men gunned down in the street by fearful and angry police. Our problems are not new, they are simply old problems found new form. DuVernay begins by showing us the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery, albeit with the proviso that it’d still be allowed as punishment for crime. This is a movie about how, in ways both intentionally and unintentionally, the amendment’s language has taken on the sneaky force of a powerful loophole.
13th collects perfectly judged archival footage to mix with a collage of talking heads from the across the political spectrum. We hear from historians, journalists, activists, politicians, lobbyists, and more – everyone from Henry Louis Gates and Michelle Alexander to Newt Gingrich – as their words are interwoven to tell the complicated story. (A few choice times she skewers a wrongheaded interviewee with judicious cross-cutting to the truth.) Stirred in with the usual graphs and text and lyrics of the modern message doc, these witnesses and chroniclers tell the narrative of our country’s last 150 years as a clear-headed examination of underlying, recurring problems. This film asks its audience to consider the core rot in our body politic and how it has continually transfigured itself every time we think we’ve gotten close to cutting it out. Systematic prejudice reconstitutes under the cover of new ideas or identities, continuing to propagate unfathomable and unfair harm, often before we even recognize its new form. The reinvention of oppression needs to be met with a radical compassion, recognition of the worth, the humanity, of every person. This movie is a good start.