In what has been a tumultuous time for American race relations, Ava Duvernay’s gripping documentary 13th reveals to the hitherto uninitiated: racism exists.
For some, this may hardly be news. Slavery, Jim Crow and other abusive institutions have left indelible prints in the mind of anyone who’s taken a decent history class. Even the most knowledgeable of civil rights activists, however, will gain from this comprehensive portrait of the black experience throughout American history.
The film opens with a stupefying statistic, intoned by the familiar voice of America’s first black president: 25% of the world’s prison population resides here “in the land of the free.” Never mind the fact that we make up only 5% of the global population, the United States has an estimated 2.3 million people behind bars, earning our country the accolade of highest incarceration rate in the world.
How did we get to this point? 13th walks you through the centuries-long process leading up to mass incarceration in painstaking detail. It begins with its constitutional namesake, the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery—except, not really. Its Criminality Clause, permitting slavery “as a punishment for crime,” was immediately exploited in the post-Civil War South to arrest and re-enslave African-Americans under different names such as “convict leasing” and “chain gangs,” and force them to provide uncompensated labor during Reconstruction. Criminalization was now an economic tool.
As the U.S. legal system incentivized the incarceration of black people, American culture began to foster the image of “negro as criminal.” Author and professor Jelani Cobb illustrates this in a scene analyzing D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. The silent drama, based on the 1905 novel The Clansman, depicts African Americans as “brutes, criminals, and rapists” and the Ku Klux Klan as heroic knights saving the country from the black menace. Cultural icons such as Birth of a Nation were used to deliberately instill fear and suspicion of black people in the American public, which made it easier to psychologically accept their imprisonment.
The criminalization of African Americans continued throughout the 20th century, picking up steam during its latter half with the Nixon Administration. Due to the legislative gains of the Civil Rights Movement, it became more difficult to incorporate direct racism into government policy. As a result, phrases such as “law and order” and “the war on drugs” began to substitute for overtly racist language, and provide an excuse for locking up black people in increasing numbers. A startling admission by Nixon’s chief domestic policy advisor John Ehrlichman describes this tactic:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
These policies of criminalization and vilification significantly increased America’s prison population, which grew from 350,000 in 1970 to over 500,000 by 1980. And this was just the beginning. The Reagan Administration, and its Southern Strategy, devastated black communities, giving tax breaks to the rich, cutting social spending on vital programs like education and welfare, and, in the words of The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander, “turned the rhetorical war [on drugs] into a literal one,” by imposing austere minimum sentences for crack and drastically expanding law enforcement. Another pertinent yet egregious quote, this time by Reagan advisor Lee Atwater, demonstrates this concerted effort to impair African Americans, exerted at the highest levels of the U.S. government:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
Once again, the prison population expanded, first under Reagan and then under his Vice President and successor George H. W. Bush, so that by 1990, nearly 1.2 million people are incarcerated.
And then came Bill Clinton, who quite frankly exploded the size of the prison system. His 1994 crime bill (which he now admits was a mistake) did a lot of things, all of which exacerbated the issue of mass incarceration. For one, it kept more people in jail for longer periods of time. Policies were enacted, such as the three strikes law, which put those convicted of three felonies in prison for life; mandatory minimums, which imposed lengthy minimum sentences for certain crimes, regardless of the circumstances; and truth-in-sentencing, which required prisoners to serve out 85 percent of their sentence without the possibility of parole. Additionally, billions of dollars were allocated to the construction of new prisons, and law enforcement was further expanded and militarized. In this light, it is gut-wrenching yet unsurprising that the U.S. prison population surpassed two million individuals by 2000.
Where did these laws come from? As author and activist James Kilgore states, opinion polls show that crime and law enforcement were not a priority at the time. In reality, the demand for these policies came not so much from the people, but from special interests. Once such interest is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a political lobbying group backed by some of the largest corporations in the world. ALEC literally writes laws and gives them to Congress members, who present them on the floor of the House and Senate. Among these ALEC-sponsored laws are the three strikes law, mandatory minimums, and the Florida Stand Your Ground law. The last of these was used to help acquit George Zimmerman during his trial regarding the murder of Trayvon Martin.
Connecting the dots, one discovers how these laws benefit ALEC’s members. For instance, gun sales boomed after the Stand Your Ground law was passed, which enriched ALEC member Walmart, one of the largest sellers of firearms in the United States. Similarly, three strikes and mandatory minimums directly benefited the private prison chain Corrections Corporation of America, whose profits increase with each additional prisoner occupying their cells. Then there is the web of companies that indirectly benefits from these laws, such as telephone service companies, uniform manufacturers, food and healthcare providers and so on, all of whom profit from more crowded prisons by virtue of the increased demand they provide. Finally, there are companies that, harkening back to the days of convict leasing, take advantage of prison labor to cheaply produce their products by paying prisoners little to nothing for their work.
It seems these so called “correctional facilities” have become bona fide businesses, profiting by the billions off of the continued imprisonment and exploitation of human beings. This massive scheme, described by Daniel Wagner as “mass incarceration and the companies that profit from mass incarceration,” has been aptly termed the prison-industrial complex. And like all other aspects of our criminal justice system, the prison-industrial complex is “hurting blacks worse.” 1 out of 3 black men will be behind bars at some point in their life, compared to 1 in 17 white men. This is attributable to the previously mentioned realities of racial discrimination in policing, the lack of economic opportunity and social services in poor and minority neighborhoods, and, to quote lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson, “a criminal justice system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.” In an economic model that profits off of exploitation, the logical course of action is to target the most vulnerable segment of the population, the part least able to defend itself. In the case of the prison-industrial complex, this means impoverished people of color.
The film makes a point of warning its audience about the evolving form of mass incarceration. Because of recent public pressure, government is beginning to get behind the idea of reducing our prison populations. For the military-industrial complex, this means having to find new ways to profit off of our criminal justice system. What they’ve come up with is the commodification of probation and parole, proposing lucrative services such as private GPS monitoring of “released” prisoners. Michelle Alexander and others argue that this would amount to imprisoning people in their own homes and communities, and would expand the already Big Brother-esque surveillance state. We are reminded to stay vigilant in the fight for justice, as turning over the cause to government and big business may result in dubious policies, viewed by civil rights activist Angela Davis as “reforms that lead to more repression.”
13th concludes with a conversation about Black Lives Matter and modern-day strategies for advocacy and activism. Perspectives are offered on the sharing of violent media, from pictures of Emmett Till’s brutalized face to the video of police officers suffocating Eric Garner. These images are powerful, and serve to shock people into awareness, yet risk normalizing the image of abused black bodies. Also noted is the importance of 21st century technology, which allows us to broadcast political messages faster and farther than ever before using smart phone recordings and social media. Finally, author and activist Van Jones applauds the distributed leadership model of Black Lives matter, noting that it makes the organization virtually impossible to destroy. Unlike previous organizations, such as the Black Panthers, whose leaders and residences were known and therefore vulnerable to attack, Black Lives Matter has no singular leader or address, and therefore no identifiable target. This bodes well for BLM’s long-term prospects of effecting positive change in the fight for racial justice.
As the credits roll to Common’s brilliantly crafted Letter to the Free, one is left with an intense array of feelings: anger, awareness, fear, inspiration, hope. The fact that this film is able to provoke such a diversity of emotions is a testament to its versatility: 13th manages at once to be intellectually rigorous, lucid, and passionate, interspersing incisive social commentary with evocative music and imagery. The thoroughness of its analysis, and the artistry of its presentation combine to place it in a special caliber among documentaries, enjoyed by a very select number of films. Its timing could not be better; race is reaching a boiling point in America, and this film brings a much-needed sense of clarity to the issue. In light of this, 13th might just be the most important film of the year. For laypeople and academics alike, this film needs to be watched—twice.