13th: Unduly Convicted, by David Bax
If your queasiness about supporting Nate Parkers’s The Birth of a Nation is going to keep you home this weekend, you’d be wise to instead stay in, fire up Netflix and watch Ava DuVernay’s 13th, which covers, in maddening detail, the things that have happened and that continue to happen to black Americans in the century and a half since the events Parker depicts. DuVernay even finds room for clips from D.W. Griffith’s film of the same name.
The thirteenth amendment to the constitution abolished slavery but with the clause “except as a punishment for crime.” DuVernay’s film traces the way those particular words have been utilized from the end of the Civil War through today in order to maintain an ever-shifting but always potent institutional racism that has thwarted the progress of black people in our country while allowing those who have power to keep it. She accomplishes this through interviews, stock footage and, most memorably, lyrics to contemporary hip-hop and R&B songs.
150 years is a lot of ground to cover and, in the early going, DuVernay zooms through her subtopics. These years of propaganda creating criminals, which created more prisoners to work the same farms the slaves did while also allowing the government to rescind the right to vote along with a whole list of other offenses are given dutiful attention as far as being informative goes but the speed of delivery dampens their emotional impact.
It turns out, though, that early efficiency is there to give DuVernay more time to zero in on the egregious moral crimes dealt to black people over the last few decades. The “war on drugs” and the “Southern strategy” are exposed as efforts to decrease black votership—statements and audio from President Nixon’s aide John Erlichman and Lee Atwater, adviser to both Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, elevate such claims out of the realm of conspiracy theory and into documented fact. Then, just when you think DuVernay is going to spend all of her ammunition on the late-20th century Republicans, she saves her harshest critiques for the Clintons, particularly President Clinton’s 1994 crime bill of mandatory minimums and “three strikes” policies, making sure to depict Hillary Clinton’s full-throated support of these measures and her use of the offensive, racially coded term “super-predator.” Surprisingly, it’s President Clinton’s rival, Newt Gingrich, who comes off better; he, of all people, sums of one of the film’s theses by saying, “No one who is white understands the challenges of being black in America.” Then, for her final major target, DuVernay takes apart the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a non-partisan but anti-democracy group that allows major corporations to literally write the laws that legislators introduce.
Such laws are how we now have, as the film shows, sweatshop labor of our very own here in America, happening with full legality inside our prisons. This is just one of the current versions slavery that have continued to exist with overwhelmingly black ranks. Rather than being a laundry list of government-supported offenses, though, DuVernay is able to tell one story of a single hatred and repression that is constantly reinventing itself. She also offers much needed reminders that, before black people were painted as the perpetrators of crime, they were the victims of it.
DuVernay started off with footage from the original The Birth of a Nation that cemented so many people’s images of black people as dangerous animals. In the end, she shows us more footage—of people like Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice and so many more—in which they are treated as such. 13th will fill your mouth with bitter anger but, if there’s a way forward, it’s one a filmmaker like DuVernay can get behind. There’s hope in the power of imagery.