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13th – A Lesson on Race, Injustice and Mass Incarceration

By Arthita Banerjee

In the mid-1960s, Malcolm X once remarked, “If you stick a knife nine inches into my back and pull it out three inches, that is not progress. Even if you pull it all the way out, that is not progress. Progress is healing the wound, and America hasn’t even begun to pull out the knife.” Unfortunately, to this day his words are just as salient and prophetic as they were during the Civil Rights Era. Race, discrimination, and power are the holy trinity that have shaped the American Criminal Justice System. The 13thamendment to the United States Constitution passed in the year 1865 forever abolished slavery as an institution making it clear that “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”. The declaration had a highly exploitable loophole one which whoever came to power, irrelevant of political leanings, always capitalized on.

A cinematic tour de force.

Ava DuVerney, the trail-blazing African-American director made the film 13th, named after the amendment making a very strong case for mass incarceration being an extension of slavery. The 2016 film which opened at the New York Film Festival earned a Best Documentary Feature nomination, making DuVernay the first African-American female director in history to score an Oscar nod in a feature category. The brilliance of DuVernay’s film is how well it maps out the myriad ways in which that very loophole has been exploited throughout time. The process not only destroyed untold lives but effectively transferred the guilt for slavery from the people who perpetuated it to the very people who suffered through it.

With an all-encompassing ethos, logos and pathos technique the film uses hard logic for rational inquiry, narrative and visual poetics to elicit emotional responses, and ample amount of rhetoric to build consensus on debated issues. 13th covers a lot of ground, all in a relatively chronological manner. The film begins by investigating how the abolition of slavery devastated the southern economy, the lynchings in the deep south, the Jim Crow laws, Nixon’s presidential campaign, Reagan’s War on Drugs, Bill Clinton’s Three Strikes and mandatory sentencing laws and the current cash-for-prisoners model that generates millions for private bail and incarceration firms.

We learn that although the U.S. is home to only 5% of the world’s population, it houses an astounding 25% of its prisoners and with black men making up barely 6.5% of the US population, they made up to 40.2% of the U.S. prison population. The graphic tally of the number of prisoners in the system is relatively stable through the 1940s but records a meteoric rise during the Civil Rights movement and the exponential growth continues into the current day. The quantitative data and the statistics used in the film reinforce the hypothesis of the prison-industrial complex being a cesspool for vested corporate interests using the system as a front to carry out modern day slavery.

Reality denied comes back to haunt.

D.W. Griffith’s landmark film, The Birth of a Nation, originally called the Clansman was a work of pro-confederacy, repugnant propaganda but unquestionably a very original work of art. At the time, most viewers knew little about slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow and almost nothing about the Klan, and were all too ready to swallow the very worst of the movie without question. Birth of a Nation depicted lynchings in a positive light. No wonder the then sitting President, Woodrow Wilson, after watching the film, remarked that it had ‘History written with lightning’. DuVernay relies on plenty of clips from Griffith’s film along with photos and videos from the Jim Crow years as a reference point to show beyond doubt how African Americans have continually been portrayed as criminals in many forms of American media. Dr. King’s voice in the background of the montage of the clips, is especially haunting, as he says, “For years now, I have heard the word ‘wait.’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This wait has almost always meant never…justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

What’s happened to the American dream? It came true. You’re lookin’ at it.

The film also investigates the vested interest of countless corporations who have prisoners work for them without pay as part of their sentencing. The arrangement has been facilitated by politicians who have implemented policies that feed off of the same media-generated terror of black criminals. The American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC, a coalition of corporate interests like Walmart and Verizon, introduces federal policies which arguably result in putting immigrants along with African Americans behind bars. The alliance then profits from the success of private prisons, surveillance, and prison labor. The film informs us how one in every four US legislators have ties to ALEC and DuVernay shows us NEWS clips where legislators have introduced bills and policies without even bothering to remove ALEC’s branding from them. The racial underpinnings of legislative policy and the active role of the state in criminalising and undermining the people of colour is more evident than it ever was.

DuVernay not only interviews liberal scholars and activists for the cause like Angela Davis, Van Jones and Henry Louis Gates, she also devotes screen time to conservatives and dissenting points of views such as Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist and Michael Hough, a Republican politician and member of ALEC. To the credit of the filmmaker, neither Norquist nor Gingrich come across as if they were brought in simply to show evidence of inclusion and a way of giving some semblance of an argument from the other side of the aisle.

Having this diverse range of voices, makes the film more engaging and adds a level of complexity and a layer of credibility to the narrative. Each interviewee is shot in a location with low lighting that evokes an industrial setting and a low constant note plays in the backdrop that creates an ominous feeling. The aesthetics visually support the theme of prison as a factory, churning out free labor, that the 13th Amendment supposedly dismantled when it abolished slavery.

A good song reminds us what we’re fighting for.

The uniquely compelling use of powerful songs in the film by black artists appear as arresting animations that highlight politically-charged lyrics, like Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype” and Nina Simone’s version of “Work Song”. The method is used primarily to transition between segments in the film and also reiterates its main theme. The song “Reagan” by Killer Mike is used to transition between Richard Nixon’s “tough on crime” and “law and order” period to Ronald Reagan’s “war on drugs”. The creative integration of rap and hip-hop songs in the film is significant to its theme because rap music has been historically used to portray the struggles of the African American people’s plight in America.

You can’t hold a man down without staying down with him.

We learn that the Nixon administration had two enemies, the blacks and the anti-war hippies of the left. The 1968 campaign ‘tough on crime’ was aimed at criminalizing both the groups with ‘specific drugs’ that are associated with them. DuVernay plays an astonishing recorded testimony from John Ehrlichman, the Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs, in which he admits that the government created a crackdown that targeted left-wing dissidents…and black people. But always with the excuse of fighting the drug scourge. “Did we know we were lying about the drugs?” asks Ehrlichman. “Of course we did.” He goes on to say ‘You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

The film briefly touches on Ronald Raegan‘s Southern Strategy and Bill Cinton’s policies on how he incentivized states to adopt truth-in-sentencing laws, which required prisoners to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence. Clinton was also responsible for the Federal Three-Strikes Law that doled out life sentences to repeat offenders. On top of the Reagan-era mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes, these added up to more people, disproportionately people of color, in prison for longer periods of time. Democrat Bill Clinton arguably did the most damage in giving birth to the current prison industrial complex.

We also learn how awarding higher sentences are the norm for crack vs. cocaine possession and how plea bargains are accepted by innocent people too terrified to go to trial. A troubling percentage of people remain in jail because they’re too poor to post their own bail.

A spark that started a prairie fire.

The film’s most important voice belongs to Kalief Browder, a Black Bronx teen who spent three horrific years in jail, despite not being convicted of a crime. He had been arrested in the spring of 2010, aged 16 and was subsequently detained on Rikers Island without any conviction for more than 1,000 days. After being released, he committed suicide two years later as a result of the mental, sexual and physical abuse he endured in prison.

The film works its way to the current days of Black Lives Matter. DuVernay uses images from the past and juxtaposes them against contemporary rhetoric. We see clips of Hillary Clinton talking about “super-predators” and the voice of Donald Trump, romantically talking about ‘the good old days’ playing over footage of the KKK burning crosses, an image that was itself inspired by Griffith’s immensely racist film. It also touches upon Trump’s full-page ad advocating the death penalty for the Central Park Five, who, as a reminder, were all innocent. There is a montage sequence depicting the deaths of Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and others. One clip that particularly stands out is the video of Philando Castile in his car after he has been shot by a police officer. Bloodied and in pain, he breathes quietly as his girlfriend records the situation, explains that they were pulled over for a simple broken tail light, and says to Philando, “Stay with me.” This section ends with a list of countless more black individuals who have unjustly died at the hands of police officers. 13th successfully argues that such events have not only become rampant, but can also seem sadly like ‘business as usual’.

Living is easy with eyes closed.

One of the major themes presented throughout the film is how unaware most Americans are of the larger racialized dynamics that were used to negatively impact vulnerable black communities — whether it was the re-enslaving of black people throughout the reconstruction period, using the war on drugs to specifically target black folks, or now using the American Legislative Exchange Council to fund private prisons dependent on black bodies for income. DuVernay was quoted as saying, ‘We’re giving you 150 years of oppression in 100 minutes. The film was 150 years in the making’. It indeed, very eloquently exemplifies how documentaries can be influential for enacting social change and it is through open dialogue and awareness that a demand for justice and reform can occur.

While the themes which the film addresses have long been relevant, they may have a particular relevance today, with the current conversation surrounding issues of police brutality and modern-day racism. The November 20th verdict of Kyle Rittenhouse who was found not guilty in the Kenosha Shootingsand completely acquitted of all charges including intentional homicide and 4 other counts, by an almost completely white jury, “sends the unacceptable message that armed civilians can show up in any town, incite violence, and then use the danger they have created to justify shooting people in the street” DuVerney tweeted.

A lot of Indians also voiced their support for the global Black Lives Matter Movement but putting things into perspective, Racism and colourism are very much a part of everyday discourse in an average Indian household. The discrimination based on skin color is partly a colonial hang-up and the idea that fair skin is superior has been thoroughly internalized by society. With no moral obligations, the idea of fair skin being equal to beauty is promoted among young men and women and as of 2019, the Indian fairness cream industry was worth $450 million.

Notably, these prejudices are not only limited to the colour of your skin but extend to the faith you practice and even the Caste you belong to. The fault lines between the majoritarian Hindus and the Muslim minority have become much worse with a Hindu nationalist government at the helm. No such activist film will ever see the light of the day in the Indian subcontinent with an ever repressive film censorship regime.

Won’t you celebrate with me?

13th is inspiring as it is wrenching to watch. With the use of didacticism in storytelling, the narrative presented in the story seeks to re-educate and eradicate the collective amnesia of American society. The film ends with images of “black joy,” as DuVernay put it — “photographs of black people and families celebrating and living their lives”. It’s a purposeful choice, and a humanizing one. “Black trauma is not our life,” DuVernay explained. “We are survivors.” Perhaps the most sobering quote of the entire film is delivered at the end by lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson. “People say all the time, ‘well, I don’t understand how people could have tolerated slavery?’ ‘How could they have made peace with that?’ ‘How could people have gone to a lynching and participated in that?’ ‘That’s so crazy, if I was living at that time I would never have tolerated anything like that.’ And the truth is we are living in this time, and we are tolerating it.”

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