Documentary. Running time: 1 hour 40 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 4; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, learn to do good;
seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
Ah, you who call evil good and good evil,
who put darkness for light and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter!
If you have been one who, at the conclusion of such films as 12 Years a Slave and Birth of a Nation sighed with relief while saying, “Thank God slavery is over,” then you especially need to watch the new documentary on NetFlix. Given the intriguing title of 13th, the film is directed by the same woman who helmed Selma, Ava DuVernay. Her claim is that slavery never died, that it has been transformed by those defeated at Appomattox into forms more acceptable to society for the past 150 years so as to keep black Americans in a perpetual state of bondage. The title refers to the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that supposedly made slaves legally free, but which contains a tricky loop hole: “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.”
Aha, Ms. DuVernay, says in effect, that exception has led the white power structure to criminalize thousands of blacks, thereby depriving them of citizenship with such rights as voting. The film discloses that after the Civil War blacks were often put into prison on vagrancy and other minor charges. Then thy were leased out to work on the plantations, the fees going to politicians and local governments. The film shows a series of presidents, beginning with Pres. Nixon who used code words to mask racism—“law and order,” “a total war on crime,” and of course, “The War on Drugs.” The latter was set into law by President Reagan, and the rise of the prison population escalated tremendously, with hundreds of thousands of people with a small amount of marijuana landing in jail. The sons and daughters of white suburbanites were either let off or given far lighter sentences than the sons of black ghetto dwellers. Changes in the sentencing structure, specially the adoption of the mandatory terms and the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” requirement, has led to longer and longer periods of incarceration.
Except for Jimmy Carter, the film does not spare any president, with the harsh sentencing changes brought in by the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill during Pres. Clinton’s tenure leading to a virtual explosion of the prison population. (We do see him recant this policy.) It was a time when no politician could appear to be “soft on crime,” hence the use of the murderer Willy Horton in the campaign of the first Bush to destroy the lead of Gov. Dukakis. The film also explores the terrible effect of privatizing the prison system, which, as should have been expected, led businesses to use every means possible to grow the prison population even more. Among the many chilling statistics cited is that of the growth of the prison population, from 200,000 in 1972 to 2.3 million today. (President Obama opens the film’s , stating that though the U.S. contains just 5% of the world’s population, but it holds 25% of the world’s prisoners!) Wow!.
Underlying all of the above, the film asserts, is a racism used to scare the public and gain its support during political campaigns. The result is that not only does the U.S. have the largest prison population in the world, but the proportion of blacks incarcerated is far beyond what would be expected were the laws, especially regarding drug use, applied on an equal basis. Blacks make up 6.5% of the U.S. population but 40.2% of those in the prison. 1 out of 17 white males will go to prison, but among blacks it is 1 out of 3. The practice of plea bargaining also is attacked due to 97% of prisoners having entered such an arrangement, often during threatening interviews with a prosecutor. The case of one innocent young black who refused to do so and then during the years it took for him to be declared innocent suffered such abuse in prison that he committed suicide is one of many individual stories that put a face on the issues.
Interspersed by archival photos and news footage are comments by 38 historians, political leaders, reporters, civil rights activists, politicians, and, black scholars. It might surprise you to see several clips of Newt Gingrich adding his voice to the denunciation of the current unbalanced system. Not so surprising are the cogent observations by the now scholar but once hated activist Angela Davis. I was especially interested in her story because my denomination, the United Presbyterian Church, was not at all united by the large grant given to her defense fund prior to her trial in the Sixties. I recall many instances in which I tried to explain to angry parishioners that the grant did not imply that she was innocent of the charges (frequently reiterated in public by the racist J. Edgar Hoover), but that we wanted to ensure that she had enough money to pay for her costly legal defense. I was saddened to see that there was no mention of ours and several other churches that assisted her back then.
For film buffs like myself the long segment on the effects of D.W. Griffiths’ Civil War film The Birth of a Nation is of great interest. Released in 1915, it was the nation’s first epic, a real blockbuster that had crowds lining up in huge queues to pay extravagant ticket prices. The story, based on the novel The Clansman in which black US soldiers are all rapists or cowards and the hooded KKK members are the heroic rescuers of white women, reflected the racism of the day and deepened the negative impression that the majority of citizens had of black males.
The film also dares to enter current politics in the skillfully edited segments in which Donald Trump, responding to protestors at his rallies, urges the crowd to punch and hustle them out. We see clips of this, and then as he harks back to “the good old days” when the police would have dealt more firmly with such, there are clips from the Civil rights era of the police clubbing and dousing blacks with fire hoses and setting dogs on them. When he says that protestors ought to be carried out on a stretcher we see a beaten black being carried to an ambulance on a stretcher. The segment on Black Lives Matter is also as challenging and set within the history of the police racism leading to the deaths of so many black males, including the sad case of Trayvon Martin.
This film affirms my long-held belief that many filmmakers are the prophets of our day, challenging us and demanding that we “seek justice, rescue the oppressed.” As with the condemnations of Jeremiah and Isaiah, it will anger many viewers—for both the wrong and the right reasons. It says that in order to improve our nation we must face its dark past and admit that there is a GREAT need for improvement. This is a film every leader, of church or other organizations should watch and discuss with members. NetFlix does the country a real service by hosting it.
This review with a set of questions will be in the Nov. 2016 issue of VP.