A review of Ava Duvernay's "13th"

Occasionally a film comes along that manages to land on a hot button issue at the exact moment when it is heavily present in the cultural consciousness. This is the case with Academy Award nominee Ava Duvernay’s newest film “13th” in which a director in the prime of her career has swung the hammer of her considerable talent and stuck hot iron—the sparks of which are flying in all directions and setting fires wherever they land.

Or so we hope.

One of the basic tenants that this documentary film by the director of “Selma” is based on is the same argument put forth by legal scholar Michelle Alexander in her powerful, meticulously researched book, “The New Jim Crow.” The book, which has become required reading for those seeking to understand the complexities of the prison industrial complex makes the point that slavery, rather than disappearing with the historical signing of the 13th amendment, has continued to exist in the United States in the form of a clandestine cast system. This system first took the form the Jim Crow laws in reconstruction era America and is now perpetuated through the continued use of for-profit prisons.

Early on in the film, as with Alexander’s book, we learn that that this paradigm of exploitation will not be an easy one to overcome. As many times as the systemic abuse of power against people of color in America has been identified by civil rights leaders and activists alike, those movements have quickly been co-opted and silenced by the very powers against which they stand.

Sometimes, that silencing has come in the form of a surgical strike, as with the continued persecution of “revolutionary” groups like the Black Panthers and NAACP. Other times it has been all out war; the militarization of police departments across the country has resulted in acts of shocking violence being perpetuated against American citizens.

Images of police action depicting the use of tanks and machine guns against unarmed protestors in the south in the late 1960’s could be exchanged for those that came out of Ferguson and most recently North Carolina. The dates and video capturing technology have changed; the brutalization of American citizens has not.

Duvernay both says and does not say these things. Instead she uses interviews with civil rights leaders and policy experts across the country to allow the audience to draw their own conclusions. Still, the message is clear—our system is broken and without a drastic overhaul led by those outside of the control of corporate lobbying groups, we will find ourselves quickly embedded in a new structure of oppression espoused by members of both the political right and left as “progress.”

Perhaps this is the most damning message of “13th”; that democrats and republicans alike have benefited from using the racist historical narrative of black men as rapists, drug pushers, and “super predators” in order to bolster their own political aspirations. Both Presidential candidates in this year’s circus of an election are shown making use of those buzzwords in their careers in an attempt to appear tough on crime (translation: we will protect you from the black animal) at points when it would be advantageous.

Hillary Clinton is later shown in the film apologizing for supporting her husband’s crime bill, responsible for the notorious Three-strikes law, which the documentary points out was written by the controversial corporate lobbying group known as ALEC. The sentiment is nice, but an apology is little comfort to an entire generation of primarily inner city black men who live each day with the debilitating stigma of a felony conviction on their record.

Prison labor goes to fill the coffers of corporations like Wal-mart, Aramark, and GM, while those who are eventually released from prison are rewarded with the inability to find gainful employment, the loss of their right to vote in an election or hold public office, and difficulty securing housing. For anyone who still seeks to make the absurd claim that our criminal justice system is rehabilitative rather than punitive, Duvernay cites the example of travesties like mandatory minimum sentences, which took away a judge’s ability to consider circumstance in criminal cases, to put the final nail firmly in the lid of that long dead argument’s coffin.

Another point that the filmmaker uses her hour and thirty minutes (and believe me when I say that it will feel much longer) to address is the common critique of the Black Lives Matter movement that its leaderless, decentralized organizational structure somehow takes away from the legitimacy of its message. On the contrary, interviews with members of BLM make the point that its lack of hierarchy is actually its greatest strength. Where the Black Panthers and civil rights activists were devastated by the deaths of Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Fred Hampton, BLM holds its strongest presence on social media, a kind of hydra in its use as an information spreading tool. Lop off one head, face two more.

Still, one gets the sense that this could also be a weakness, though maybe not in the way that opponents of BLM like to point out. As the availability of gruesome and shocking videos have increased through the use of technology, so has the likelihood that like many American tragedies (school shootings and drone strikes come to mind) we will find ourselves desensitized to cell phone videos of American citizens being killed by police officers for the crime of being black.

What will win out? Our collective outrage over the seemingly endless perpetuation of violence against people of color or the societal fatigue of seeing these images that have become so pervasive, allowing this slippery issue to transform again under our very eyes?

Only time will tell.

If the statistics are to be believed, and Duvernay makes a compelling case that would be difficult for any follower of these issues to ignore, then we are forced to confront a truth that must be acknowledged and internalized by members of every race across the fifty states before change of any sort can be enacted: slavery, racism, and brutality of the minorities of our country not only is still an important issue, it never ceased to be one.