The documentary is a sweeping historical survey that directly links slavery to today’s prison-industrial complex. It couldn’t be more timely.
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Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary “13th” (2016) and limited series “When They See Us” could be seen first two titles in a trilogy on the history and legacy of racial injustice in the United States. The third entry doesn’t exist yet — but we’re living through it: a time when revisionist slogans like “Make America Great Again” can win elections, and the once promise of a post-racially harmonious America that many had the audacity to hope for has been shattered.
Exploring the intersection of race and justice in the United States from a historical perspective, “13th” makes a direct connection between slavery and mass incarceration. That historical link operates as a bridge between the harsh truths uncovered in Sam Pollard’s eye-opening 2012 feature documentary “Slavery By Another Name” and Angela Davis’ incendiary 1997 tome, “The Prison Industrial Complex.”
Pollard’s film is based on Douglas A. Blackmon’s literary exposé on an “age of neo-slavery” that thrived from the aftermath of the Civil War, and the passing of the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States. Davis’ “Prison Industrial Complex,” takes on a faulty U.S. legal structure, with prison populations that have grown at a rate unparalleled in history, creating what is effectively a modernized slave labor system that gives private prisons political influence and huge profits to businesses that supply goods and services to prison agencies.
Bridging both works, “13th” paints a devastating picture of the unsightly and horrific practices that kept hundreds of thousands of Black Americans enslaved for many decades, detailing the conspiracy by southern whites after the Civil War who manipulated a morally corrupt judicial system (in part due to the exploitation of a single clause in the 13th Amendment). Legally free after Emancipation, African-Americans were forced back into involuntary bondage to work in mines, quarries, lumber camps and urban factories – either as convicts based on extremely tenuous charges, or to repay nebulous forms of neverending debt.
By the end of the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights movement, the country saw an end to legal segregation and the introduction of the Voting Rights Act. What followed, however, was a more stealthy form of racial bias, which came in the form of racially-coded rhetoric of “law and order” and the “war on crime.”
Decades later, the so-called “Central Park Five” (Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana Jr.), whose stories are illuminated in “When They See Us,” were victims of a similar kind of institutional manipulation within a morally bankrupt system. There was an immediate, deliberate scheme conjured up and implemented by New York City’s criminal justice apparatus to ensure that the crime was solved swiftly, regardless of evidence, and these five boys were unwitting pawns in service of that goal.
Convicted long before the trial in a city blinded by fear and weighed with racial conflict, they suffered from a range of derogatory labels: They were the children of Reagan’s “welfare queens” in the early ’80s, who became “wilding” youth later in the decade, and eventually Hillary Clinton’s “super-predators” in the early ’90s. These are all terms that belong to a library of racialized dog whistles designed to evoke moral panic, which justified Bill Clinton’s 1996 Crime Bill that former Vice President Joe Biden helped write as a senator 25 years ago. Coincidentally, that very same bill has been thrust back into the spotlight on the 2020 campaign trail, as Biden makes a play for the highest office in the land.
In much the same way that the country experienced a backlash against Emancipation and Reconstruction 150 years ago, all in an effort to keep African Americans in bondage, the election of Donald Trump – the most vocal public figure to speak out against the Central Park Five — was seen by pundits as a backlash by white America against the racial progress that Obama’s election seemed to promise.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. And when it comes to the American criminal justice system, the specifics of each instance may change, but the dangerous rush to judgment in racially-charged cases remains constant, impeding genuine racial progress.
In each case, as in all other legalized forms of oppression that can collectively be filed under the heading “Living While Black in America,” the roots of Black America’s healthy distrust of the criminal justice system are instructive to revisit in light of current events. Most importantly, they highlight the challenge of facing the deeply warped belief that Black people tend toward lawlessness, the same notion D. W. Griffith expressed in 1915’s “The Birth of a Nation.”
Though historical in its analysis, “13th” couldn’t be more relevant today. The US imprisons over 25% of the world’s incarcerated population; one in three Black men is expected to spend time in prison or jail in his lifetime; the prison population has grown from 357,292 in 1970 to 2.3 million in 2016; and more Black men are in prison today than were enslaved in 1850.
The film challenges audiences to move beyond simple calls for reform. Anything that will only redesign a system of subjugation that has existed in various versions since the end of the Civil War is off the table. It’s a call to view mass incarceration as a profound crisis of ethics and to take an active stand for racial justice. And it ends with lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson’s stirring words:
People say all the time, “I don’t understand how people could have tolerated slavery… How could people have gone to a lynching and participated in that?… If I was living at that time, I would have never tolerated anything like that.” And the truth is, we are living at this time. And we are tolerating it.
Needless to say, “13th” isn’t just timely. It’s a warning sign, and a template for the fights to come.
“13th” is currently streaming on Netflix.
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