NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, October 8th, 2017

Documentary Review: Ava DuVernay’s “13th” offers eye-opening look at mass incarceration

If you have yet to see Ava DuVer­nay’s Oscar-nom­i­nat­ed and Emmy-win­ning doc­u­men­tary “13th”, you should real­ly make plans to screen it as soon as pos­si­ble. This short com­men­tary will sure­ly not do it justice.

Ava DuVernay’s “13th”: The story never changes

Release Year: 2016
Run­ning Time: 100 min
Direc­tor: Ava DuVer­nay
Watch the trailer

Kevin Gan­non, Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry at Grand­view Uni­ver­si­ty, who is white, sums up the chal­lenge we as coun­try face today ear­ly in the film: “His­to­ry is not just stuff that hap­pens by acci­dent. We are the prod­ucts of the his­to­ry our ances­tors chose, if we’re white. If we are black, we are prod­ucts of the his­to­ry that our ances­tors most like­ly did not choose. Yet here we all are togeth­er, the prod­ucts of that set of choic­es. And we have to under­stand that in order to escape from it.”

This pow­er­ful film dis­cuss­es the ways slav­ery has con­tin­ued to oppress black peo­ple in the Unit­ed States, long after the Thir­teenth Amend­ment of the Con­sti­tu­tion was rat­i­fied and adopt­ed in 1865. Though the Thir­teenth Amend­ment out­laws slav­ery, there is a clause that cre­ates one major loop­hole: “except as a pun­ish­ment for crime where­of the par­ty shall have been duly convicted.”

This loop­hole has been exploit­ed con­tin­u­ous­ly since the adop­tion of the Thir­teenth Amend­ment to con­tin­ue to legal­ly enslave black peo­ple. In order to use this loop­hole to full effect, blacks were tar­get­ed for arrest for such “crimes” as vagrancy and round­ed up in large num­bers to work the fields they had only so recent­ly escaped. Thus the the mythol­o­gy of black crim­i­nal­i­ty, which is still so insid­i­ous today, was born and spread in order to keep a steady flow of free labor.

The prison pop­u­la­tion of the Unit­ed States remained fair­ly con­stant until the 1970s, when the mod­ern era of mass incar­cer­a­tion began. Richard Nixon start­ed us down this path, with his talk of “law and order” and a “war on crime.”

Ronald Rea­gan “turned a rhetor­i­cal war into a lit­er­al one,” accord­ing to Michelle Alexan­der, author of the “The New Jim Crow.”

Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton’s 1994 crime bill fur­ther accel­er­at­ed the rates of incar­cer­a­tion while also slow­ing the release of pris­on­ers thanks to the “three strikes” scheme that requires life sen­tences for peo­ple con­vict­ed of three felonies.

All of this his­to­ry cov­ered in the film leads up to a jar­ring rev­e­la­tion: that there are more black peo­ple in the Unit­ed States under crim­i­nal super­vi­sion now than there were enslaved in the South in the 1850s. Though our total pop­u­la­tion rep­re­sents only 5% of the world’s pop­u­la­tion, we are home to 25% of the world’s prisoners.

Anoth­er shock­ing aspect of the film was that among the many aca­d­e­mics, activists, and politi­cians inter­viewed was none oth­er than for­mer Speak­er of the House and failed Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Newt Gingrich.

Even more amaz­ing (for me, at least) was what he had to say: “The objec­tive real­i­ty is that vir­tu­al­ly no one who is white under­stands the chal­lenge of being black in Amer­i­ca.” This acknowl­edge­ment of racism in Amer­i­ca and the mul­ti­ple effects it has on the lives of black peo­ple was refresh­ing to hear from a Republican.

Jelanie Cobb, Pro­fes­sor of African Amer­i­can Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Con­necti­cut, address­es the harm­ful stereo­types that have been used against black peo­ple for cen­turies in the US in the con­text of the cur­rent fight against mass incar­cer­a­tion: “If you look at the his­to­ry of black peo­ple’s var­i­ous strug­gles in this coun­try, the con­nect­ing theme is the attempt to be under­stood as full, com­pli­cat­ed human beings. We are some­thing oth­er than this vis­cer­al image of crim­i­nal­i­ty and men­ace and threat to which peo­ple asso­ciate with us.”

Watch­ing this doc­u­men­tary would be a good first step to help dis­pel those stereo­types with­in our­selves and to hope­ful­ly inspire us to work togeth­er for greater racial jus­tice in gen­er­al, and reform in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem specifically.

“13th” is cur­rent­ly avail­able on Net­flix, or can be seen at a screen­ing by Wedge­wood Mean­ing­ful Movies on Fri­day, Octo­ber 13 at 7 PM. You can see a full list of loca­tions and doc­u­men­taries being shown by the Mean­ing­ful Movies Project here.

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