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

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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