“You start out in 1954 by saying ‘n---er, n---er, n---er.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n---er’ – that hurts you, backfires. So, you say stuff like, uh, ‘forced busing’, ‘states’ rights’, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N---er, n---er.” – Lee Atwater
Lee Atwater was a Republican operative who worked in President Ronald Reagan’s administration. He stated the above quote in a 1981 interview with political scientist Alexander Lamis. The idea is that as openly racist attitudes and speech become less acceptable with civil rights advances, politicians and institutions wishing to uphold the white hegemony must find new, more acceptably racist ways to achieve that goal. The examination of that tactic is central to director Ava DuVernay’s powerful new documentary 13th, so named for the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution. That’s the one officially ending slavery in America. Well, almost.
There is one exception, a disastrous loophole that has allowed for many African Americans to be kept in proverbial chains long after the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. The Amendment states that slavery and indentured servitude are strictly prohibited in the United States, except – here comes the loophole – “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” The film presents an unflinching look at how the racist policies following the end of the Civil War have led directly to the United States having the largest prison population in the world, the overwhelming majority of which are people of color.
13th begins in a self-reflexive way, by looking at film history. DuVernay is the director of Selma, and she became the first African American female director to have her film nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, though she didn’t get a nomination herself for Best Director. It feels like a reckoning that DuVernay opens 13th by examining what is widely considered the first great landmark of early cinema, the 1915 D.W. Griffith film The Birth of a Nation. Film scholars and historians have described how Birth codified many filmmaking techniques that moviegoers today take for granted, even if they don’t consciously recognize them. Cross-cutting between simultaneous storylines, close-up shots, and flashbacks weren’t Griffith’s inventions but he synthesized these ideas, and others, in a way that had tremendous influence on the art of filmmaking.
Unfortunately, Griffith’s film had just as great an impact on society’s views on race as it did on future filmmakers, and it’s that influence that 13th scrutinizes. After the passage of the 13th Amendment, slavery was no longer legal, but white supremacists were desperate to keep African Americans subservient and controlled. The easiest way to do that in the post-slavery environment was to lock them up as criminals. The Birth of a Nation did a great service to racists by portraying blacks as rapacious animals. Indeed, with its depiction of the Ku Klux Klan as protecting decent white folks from marauding former slaves in the days following the end of the Civil War, the film inspired the reorganization of the modern KKK in the 1920s.
DuVernay draws a straight line from the origins of criminalizing blackness to the current statistic that one-in-three black men will serve prison time during his life. It’s a harrowing journey, and not one to be undertaken lightly. If there is a weakness to 13th, it’s that the film tries to cover too much ground. DuVernay does the best she can, but at times the sheer volume of facts and statistics becomes overwhelming. There are graphic images to go along with the vast amounts of hard data that 13th weaves into its story.
The documentary makes the bold case that when an entire class of people are seen as criminal, barely above animals, that makes it all the easier to skip the incarceration and kill them in the streets instead. The director is aware that showing these images thoughtlessly can be just as damaging as the act itself, which is why DuVernay meticulously sought the permission of family members before including footage of their loved ones’ deaths at the hands of the police. One by one, the shaky cell phone or body camera footage showing people like Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and Philando Castile being murdered unspools. It’s an infuriating and hopeless situation to confront, and 13th documents how the attitudes and policy of the last 150 years have also made it inevitable.
The filmmakers know it’s not enough to simply show how we got here. They also forecast where we’re headed if things don’t change. The film explains how not only racism has led us to our current epidemic, but that capitalism also shares some of the culpability.
In talking head style interviews with people like Michelle Alexander – author of the excellent and groundbreaking book The New Jim Crow – we learn how the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) has a vested interest in filling up the prisons it runs. After all, every inmate is an increase to shareholder ROI. In rapid succession, the film explains how the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) represented CCA, pushing their agenda to legislators, but because of grassroots efforts to expose ALEC, CCA discontinued their membership. The result was a new focus for the lobbying organization, the for-profit bail and parole industry. It’s a powerful, if dizzying, lesson in how everything that has come before affects what comes next.
Now, corporations are set to make billions from ankle monitor GPS systems in addition to housing inmates. Of course, before they can be parolees, they have to be made into convicts first. 13th has that process covered, too, in the middle section of the film that documents the ruthless and ultimately failed war on drugs. It’s a process that began under the Nixon administration, ramped up to unimaginable heights during the Reagan administration, and mutated into something else completely with Bill Clinton’s Presidency. We are shown in stark terms how ideas that took shape a century ago led to current policy debacles, like mandatory minimum prison sentencing and three strike programs.
There is a common refrain among people who wish to minimize and belittle the valid complaints that the African American community has about how they are treated in our society. Whenever slavery is mentioned in connection with these complaints, African Americans are told to “get over it,” and that it was “a long time ago.” I’ve heard these arguments firsthand, and 13th is a complete and total refutation of this kind of illogic. The past is continuously shaping the present and until we come to terms with that, we can never hope to make the future any better than what’s come before.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- 13th is the reason I watch documentaries. It's a great example of the power that they can have. Documentary is a varied and rich genre. It can be a lot of fun and even cathartic to watch something like King of Kong, but 13th seeks to uncover important truths and wake people up to what is literally a life-and-death situation for millions of people.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- 13th was distributed by Netflix, so if you have a subscription, the film is available to you right now, in your own home.
- I didn't mention the score at all in my review, or the original hip-hop songs that act as breaks between the topics DuVernay covers. Both are excellent, and add a beautiful layer to the film.
- DuVernay allows equal time to both sides of the argument covered in 13th. We see former House Speaker Newt Gingrich discuss the thinking behind the war on drugs in the 70s and 80s, and he also admits the damage that it did was unfairly focused on people of color. Conservative anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist is also interviewed, blaming the prison epidemic on liberal identity politics. DuVernay also interviews a representative from ALEC, and he does the best he can to explain the thinking of the organization.
- If there is any doubt about how vital this film is, Corrections Corporation of America, the for-profit prison company I talked about in the review, had a 60% spike in their stock after Donald Trump was elected. Sadly, making money from putting people in cages will be big business for many, many years to come.