The third time I watched 13th on Netflix, the much talked about documentary from Ava DuVernay, it was post election. Post the
dream nightmare promise of a Trump presidency. It takes on new significance than my initial viewings. The cold opening of the documentary is the voice of President Obama stating that the United States has 5% of the world’s population, but houses 25% of the world’s prison population. That is an astounding number, but not that surprising for people that have long advocated for prison and justice reform. As the prison population has grown to over 2.6 million people, the film seeks to explain why we grossly populate our prisons so much more than any other country by a long shot. The answer, not so simply, that the documentary gives is that there is big business in policing, sentencing and jailing Black and Brown people. And business continues to boom.
The film centers around the titular event of the 13th amendment to the Constitution, that statute that made slavery illegal. Except for the loophole that this didn’t apply to people that were prisoners or criminals. So what do you do if you’re the South and your economy hinged on free and enslaved labor that you can no longer access? Well, if there is a loophole to bring back that workforce without it collapsing your society, you probably exploit it. Hence, the rise of arrest or ways to categorize people as criminals. There are those that will oppose that theory as some kind of conspiracy theory, but then that would make the end of slavery and the rise of prison populations as a coincidence. And what do we say about coincidences Sherlock?
The movie Rosewood, came out in 1997, the year of my high school graduation, though I personally didn’t see the movie till a year later. My 18 year old, still impressionable, unaware of the ‘why’ I was always so angry, watched Rosewood as if it were a documentary. Even though it is absolutely based upon a true story, it was anything but a documentary. The actual event, in 1923 originated when White men from a neighboring town to the mostly Black Rosewood lynched a Black Rosewood resident based upon unfounded rape allegations from a White woman. [quote_left]”Every step shows the decreased value in Black and Brown lives that are cast into the legal system”[/quote_left]What resulted was an estimate between 6 and 10 Black people killed in the aftermath with the town of Rosewood being abandoned for fear of continued violence and extermination. However mild in pure body count to our much more recurring mass shootings we face in our much evolved over the last 100 years country, it was still a massacre worthy of living in infamy. The movie itself became the lightning rod for my generation when we referred to a piece of entertainment that angered us until our blood boiled over. Watching 13th is a potent, mostly on course documentary that will more than likely just piss you off. Educate you, and piss you off. Netflix and woke you and piss you off. But it is without a doubt, necessary viewing.
The documentary charts by decade, historical time period, and especially by Presidential term, the role of crime and punishment and how it has been wielded by those in power. Sometimes to keep power (as in win elections by stoking fear) or for capitalist means or both. Set on a chronological path of showing the “needs” of those in power and how they aligned an alarming increase in inmates, every step shows the decreased value in Black and Brown lives that are cast into the legal system. Whether the individuals should be jailed at all or for the duration they are jailed, there is a steady history of those capacities expanding for political gain for decades. The War on Drugs, “Super-predators,” Three Strikes, and Mandatory Minimums, etc; all terms and mandates set forth by administrations that disproportionately affected people of color living in urban or inner-city environments.
The information is ushered along by a thorough set of interviews, made up of mostly intellectuals and some politicians (I’ll let you know where those occurrences overlap). Plenty of Black political scientists and educators such as Michelle Alexander, Van Jones, Angela Davis, Jelani Cobb and others are often center stage. More than just intellectuals, [quote_right]”The transitions between the time periods is pinned up by iconic hip hop tracks and demonstrates just how unapologetic DuVernay is about the content”[/quote_right] the most important aspect of those lending their voice to the documentary, they are invested and empathetic to the people that are affected by these laws and directives. While most of these speakers in the documentary are progressive are left leaning, the documentary doesn’t take a political side in politicians role in criminalization as a device and fear tactic. Both Republican and Democrat administrations that are under the spotlight for advancing agendas that fed our prisons but the hundreds of thousands. Each new presidential term upping the stakes and increasing the prison population.
As for the direction itself, DuVernay does a good job of navigating the documentary, cutting between footage for the appropriate time period, the interviews and propaganda / documentation supporting the claims of the interviewees. The transitions between the time periods is pinned up by iconic hip hop tracks and demonstrates just how unapologetic DuVernay is about the content and how is the most affected by it. Also, the fact that Black folks, including rappers, have been documenting the prison complex phenomenon since it began. There a few times where the stories divert from the main thrust of the documentary itself, but none of it is irrelevant or not without some value.
I remember the first time I watched Rosewood and the rage that bubbled in the negative space of my lungs, wondering how people could lack such humanity that led to those disastrous events. But that was in some selected parts, fiction. 13th does not have the awkward aftertaste of being fiction. The questions one might have concerning humanity does not come with easy answers when examining how deliberate and enduring the prison crisis has persisted. If you watch 13th and it makes you shrug or you can’t understand why it would upset people, then you’ve got some questions that a documentary won’t be able to answer for you.