Ava DuVernay’s incisive and shocking documentary 13th hit like a body blow when she first unveiled it in the autumn 2016 film festivals. (The very existence of the project came to light only when the New York Film Festival announced in July that year that this movie would open its program in September; I first saw it that October at London Film Festival.) Donald Trump had not yet been “elected” President of the United States, but already, the shock of him ascending to the status of Republican nominee was unsettling. Many Americans were already terrified of what his rise boded for the future on numerous fronts, not least the open racism of American society, which would surely only get, seemingly impossibly, even worse.
Fast forward to *checks watch* now, and this is a brutal and necessary watch. A virus pandemic is disproportionately impacting people of color, and then comes yet more homicidal police violence against Black Americans: George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are but the latest in a very long line, many of whom have in recent years had their abuse and deaths caught on smartphone video and shared online for all to see in ways that hadn’t previously been as visible or obvious, at least to white Americans. There have been lots of protests over similar deaths of Black Americans before — the shooting of Michael Brown by a cop in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, and the unrest that followed, seems to have been the prompt for DuVernay (Selma) to make 13th, in fact.
But the deaths of Taylor and, particularly, Floyd (because: sexism, probably) appear to have been a last straw, perhaps because so much of what everyone has endured during the pandemic lockdown has demonstrated how arbitrary and ready to be upended our status quo was. And so, wholly justifiable righteous, angry, lockdown-defying protests demanding deep cultural change sprang up across the United States, and the whole planet, and are still ongoing, and getting bigger, as I write this. It’s a terrifying moment, ripe for disaster with a sociopathic authoritarian like Trump at the wheel, but also a hopeful one: real change feels more possible now that it has at any time that I can recall in my life.
How did we get here? Why is America like this? Why do police operate with such impunity when it comes to their horrendous, murderous treatment of Black people? What does it mean to talk about making changes? What, specifically, do we need to change? Many Americans — white people especially, but also some Black people, for reasons 13th delves into (spoiler: propaganda is very effective) — simply have no clue about racial history. Because our schools don’t teach it, and, in fact, bend over backward to dish out a version of the American story that ignores the role not only of Black Americans but also the as-yet unfinished fight for equality. Yet the history of Black people in America and their struggle to be seen as fully American is the history of America. These are inextricably intertwined.
Well. I’ve already spent the word count of a full review just building up to explaining why every American — and everyone else who wants to understand America — needs to see this incredibly important film. It’s not even a gloss on Black American history; even a gloss would be too much for one movie. 13th is a primer on one essential, unspoken basic of Black American history and of understanding America: this is about how America didn’t really abolish slavery at all. It merely transformed the institution into a form that allowed for plausible deniability and the soothing of the collective white conscience while maintaining paradigms of racial superiority and the harnessing of Black bodies for maximum economic benefit to white stakeholders.
It that makes you feel uncomfortable… If that makes you want to deny this… Then you are who desperately needs to see this movie.
Now, it’s true that the film’s title refers to the 13th amendment to the US Constitution, ratified by the nation in 1865, which states:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Sounds great, right? But there’s that caveat: “except as a punishment for crime.” What possible negative impact could that have?
Fast forward to 21st-century America, which has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Why would that be? Because we replaced chattel slavery with mass incarceration, by criminalizing minor offenses such as possession of small quantities of some drugs, by enacting mandatory sentencing laws to ensure that as many people go to prison for as long as possible, and then by farming out prison labor to for-profit corporations. Oh, and we made prisons themselves a for-profit endeavor that require as many prisoners as possible to ensure a healthy dividend to shareholders. That’s how we’ve gotten to the point, now, where America has 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prisoners. And then, if a felon is lucky enough to serve out a sentence that isn’t actually endless (because other laws made that a possibility), he — almost invariably he, but sometimes she, too — will very often have his citizenship rights (such as the right to vote) stripped from him.
13th leads you step by step to how we got here. It is an undeniable progression of clear, plain, entrenched racism. It should outrage any American who honestly cares about equality and fairness. If it doesn’t outrage you, you need to have a serious talk with yourself, and either admit that you’re racist or start to wake the fuck up about the endless barriers that have been placed before Black Americans.
Like this: Even before a Black boy or man in America today ever encounters a cop or the criminal justice system — which is many times more likely than it is for white Americans — there is the insidious cultural programming that casts the Black male as inherently criminal. This is programming that commenced in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War — which, remember, was supposed to have ended slavery — and continued into the 20th century via Hollywood, with its first blockbuster in the outrageously racist The Birth of a Nation. (This movie reinvigorated the KKK and actually straight-up invented some racist iconography, which the real Klan appropriated, because it was more cinematic than reality. Never let it be said that there’s any such thing as “just a movie.”) Then the programming morphed into Jim Crow laws and housing segregation and Nixon and Reagan’s “war on drugs,” and Clinton’s “war on crime.” Today we have Trump’s “law and order.” All of these seemingly innocuous phrases are dog whistles to racists. They are code for “coming down hard on Black people.” It’s all fucking here, including acknowledgements from Republican election strategists that they knew precisely what they were doing and saying when they deployed these phrases. DuVernay has the receipts.
There is so much that 13th doesn’t even begin to get into: Hello, the origin of police in slave patrols! Hello, the valorization of cops in pop culture! Hello, the militarization of police forces across America post-9/11! And yet this is still an absolutely mandatory analysis of the careful and deliberate construction of systemic racism in America. Whole sorry “systems of oppression” are carefully delineated here: police brutality toward Black men especially is a feature of the system, not a bug. An amazing array of experts — mostly Black, with lots of women — very calmly and academically lay out the horrors. (Prison reformer Bryan Stevenson, whose story is told in Just Mercy, is one of the primary talking heads here. He’s terrific.) No American gets to look away from this. (There are photos of real lynchings from the early 20th century here. Look at them.) This is who we are, as awful as it is. We have to understand it in order to change it. Educate your-fucking-self.