Black History Month: 13th

If I say “prison-industrial complex,” do your eyes start to glaze over immediately? Then 13th is the documentary for you. Ava DuVernay intentionally made a primer on this issue, a well-researched but still easily digestible 1 hour and 40 minute introduction to the history of the American problem of mass incarceration. It’s a hell of a history.

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DuVernay and her interview subjects draw a clear line from slavery through to the present day prison set-up. I know a lot of (white) people think discussions of racism and structural discrimination focus too much on slavery, and can’t we as a country just move on? But people have been saying that since emancipation, and at no point have we ever reckoned with this foundational part of the United States, which means the underlying issues of systemic racism and oppression are never fully addressed, and we keep repeating the same terrible shit over and over.

The throughline runs from slavery to convict leasing to Jim Crow and lynching to prisons and the disenfranchisement and lack of possibilities upon release. The 13th from the title is the Constitutional amendment that abolished slavery and forced servitude — except as punishment for a crime. What the documentary makes crystal clear is that much of the oppressive, inhumane treatment from slavery carries over through these other forms, and the thing that allows that is the phrase in the 13th Amendment “except as a punishment for crime.” Just rebrand people as criminals and you can have much the same effect. It’s devastatingly simple and clear when you say it like that, and the rest of the film shows how it was done.

First, arrest people for vagrancy and put them to work rebuilding the South after the Civil War. Then push the idea of the black man out to rape white women, and the dangerous, immoral nature of black people in general; public lynchings are celebrated and black people move from the south to northern cities in the Great Migration, fleeing a life of terror. Set up an entire system to keep black people separate, second-class citizens under Jim Crow; the very fact that they are forced to use separate facilities for everything marks them out as alien and less than human. When the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s successfully breaks up this segregated system, and you have to drop the explicit racial talk, immediately implement coded terms so that “criminal” almost always means “black.” Start a “war on drugs” that punishes black people disproportionately, based on the drugs used overwhelmingly in poor black communities (crack cocaine) as opposed to rich white communities (powder cocaine). Represent black people on TV as criminals disproportionately. Introduce mandatory minimums and truth in sentencing and a 1994 crime omnibus bill that put more black people — especially men — in prison than ever before. Privatize prisons so that, through contracts with the prison corporations, the state is incentivized to jail people. Allow prison corporations to be part of a task force that writes legislation for lawmakers, so that laws favorable to the prison companies are put into place and those companies can profit from punishment. Put prisoners to work for little to no pay, producing many of the “Made in America” goods we’re proud to buy, and making it more difficult to extricate profit from the prison system (and here we see “prison-industrial complex”). When enough people get angry about the set-up of the prison industry, start “reform” movements that keep profit in the hands of the few and keep black people disenfranchised and not at liberty, for example by introducing more GPS tracking. Whatever strides black and brown people make toward true equality, adapt the system to disallow that. And always deny that any of this has to do with race.

DuVernay and her crew interviewed leading thinkers in American history, prison abolition, and race over the course of two years. She also interviewed people who may not agree with much of what her documentary is saying, including conservative politicians and a particularly hapless ALEC member. She apparently spent two hours talking with each interviewee, which is much longer than interviews usually go on for, and in this way she got more honest and in-depth conversations from people who might otherwise dissemble or evade. One of my favorite subjects is Angela Davis, who has made much of her life’s work about prison abolition, and other speakers who made me think and write down word for word what they’d said include Malkia Cyril, Bryan Stevenson, Jelani Cobb, and Michelle Alexander (whose book, The New Jim Crow, I have on hold at the library).

DuVernay’s artistry shows mostly in how easy to understand and yet challenging the documentary is, and how seamlessly she moves from one topic to the next, all within the larger topic. There are also some particularly affecting moments, like when the camera lingers on a photo of Trayvon Martin for a long time, burning this murdered child’s face into our retinas. Another is the heartwrenching and enraging sequence wherein she alternates between scenes of groups of white people at Trump rallies pushing and hitting black people and scenes of groups of white people pushing and hitting black people from the time of the civil rights movement and before, all while Trump talks to the crowd saying things like “Knock the crap out of him, would ya?” and “In the good old days, this doesn’t happen, because they used to treat them very, very rough.” It’s a brilliant bit of filmmaking and it places white people firmly in the spotlight: this behavior in 2016 is the same as the behavior in 1956, so everyone saying they would’ve been on MLK’s side back then, where are you now, when it’s just the same?

Today, the lifetime likelihood of imprisonment for white men in the United States is 1 in 17. For black men, it’s 1 in 3. ONE THIRD. Black men make up 6.5% of the US population, but 40.2% of the prison population. That’s what is meant by disproportionate. That is what is meant by an epidemic. That is what is meant by a broken system that systematically breaks down communities of color and steals the futures of generations of children.

Bryan Stevenson points out that “the presumption of dangerousness and guilt follows every black and brown person everywhere”; it’s this criminalization of an entire group of people that makes it possible for the majority of the country to care less about them — “oh well, they did something bad, they’re criminals” — and to ignore what’s done to them. As Jelani Cobb asks, “Whose life do we recognize as valuable?” The answer may well be in prison abolition — not reforming the system, but breaking it apart completely and finding a different way of approaching law, order, criminality, and the people involved. And it certainly lies in retraining the country to see people of color as valuable human beings, not as criminals or statistics or a problem that can’t be solved and doesn’t need to be heard. Malkia Cyril says, “Black Lives Matter… is about changing the way this country understands human dignity.”

13th is essential viewing for anyone who lives in the United States, but especially those who don’t see a problem with the prison system or who think #BlackLivesMatter is an overreaction — let this be the film that you watch in an evening and ponder for weeks to come.

 

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Black History Month: The Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is an absolute pageturner; I read it in three days. The most immediately recognizable “oh that’s different” thing about this novel is that it posits that there is an actual, physical railroad ferrying slaves to freedom underneath the earth during the first half of the 19th century. But for me, the most notable thing about this novel is its approach to historical truth: everything written here is true, just not in the time that Whitehead writes about it.

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“Now that she had run away and seen a bit of the country, Cora wasn’t sure the [Declaration of Independence] described anything real at all. America was a ghost in the darkness, like her.”

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Black History Month: Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures does its job well, telling the uplifting story of three trailblazing black women at NASA in the ’60s by showing some Obviously Racist Policies that the main characters Resist With Dignity until Good-at-Heart White People learn some Valuable Lessons and Civil Rights Are Won and Racism Defeated, all in Tasteful Period Costumes. Well, that’s a little bit how the movie works, and it’s no surprise that it does; if you’re going to get a major studio picture made about race in America, and pick up those Oscar nominations, you have to take the prestige approach. But what I liked best about this movie was that it doesn’t just stick to the template. There are wonderfully powerful and subversive moments throughout Hidden Figures.

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Black History Month: Black Panther

Some movies have such a build-up, and so many people’s expectations riding on them, that the chance of the actual movie living up to all that is slim. I remember when Bridesmaids came out, there was this huge push for people to go see it, because it was being used as a litmus test for whether big-budget woman-led comedies were viable (as you know, women aren’t funny, or at least, not as universally funny as men). And then the film itself was funny and fun, but maybe not the most mindblowing comedy you’ve ever seen. Still, after that we got Bad Moms and Girls Trip and some other big-budget women-led comedies, so maybe Hollywood decided it was worth all the fuss. If that’s the case, then they’d better listen up good to what everyone’s saying (in print and with their money) about the new Marvel movie, Black Panther: enough with all-white casts and the secondary black characters, give us more of this. Because it lives up to the hype. As my friend said after watching it, THE SHEER JOY.

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Black History Month: Dear White People

TV recommendations seem to be as popular a part of small talk as the weather and traffic patterns. People tend to recommend hour-long dramas, but what I want are 20- or 30-minute comedies, something funny, smart, and thoughtful. The Netflix series Dear White People, based on the movie of the same name, is all those things. If we’re talking and we’ve covered how rainy it’s been and how crowded the Tube is, expect me to bring up this show.

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Black History Month: The Wiz

Up until now, I’ve reviewed only movies with black directors, but I’m making an exception today because although Sidney Lumet directed The Wiz, it’s one of the few all-black musicals and was a big deal on its release in 1978. Transferred from the stage to the screen in what was then the most expensive musical production ever, the film was shot on location in New York and in studio space in Queens, and it starred Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow. Forty years after its release, the movie doesn’t stand out as one of the great musicals committed to film, but it does have many wonderful numbers and a great cast.
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Black History Month: I Am Not Your Negro

The screenwriting credit for I Am Not Your Negro is James Baldwin. This is quite the claim for director Raoul Peck to make, considering that he made this movie about Baldwin thirty years after the great writer’s death. Peck took words that Baldwin wrote, and clips of words he spoke, and wove a narrative about race in America, and what the future of the country might be on that front. I started watching this movie thinking it was a biopic on Baldwin, and found that instead it was a biopic on America.

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In speeches he gave at Cambridge and in France, in essays he published and personal letters he wrote to friends, Baldwin patiently explained just how deep the wounds of slavery are in the US, and how impossible it is to move forward on issues of true equality until those wounds are addressed.

One of the most striking moments in the film is when Baldwin is on a talk show and an old white man joins him onstage. He’s a professor of philosophy, and he comes out to decry the identity politics that he sees as becoming increasingly popular — why must we be so hung up on these issues of identity? Baldwin’s reply, that when your identity makes you a target for very real violence, that discussing political issues is always tinged with the personal because of what might happen to you personally, is piercing. It’s the answer to every #AllLivesMatter complaint.

Peck doesn’t shy from making explicit connections between the problems of Baldwin’s time and the problems of our time — because they’re the same problems, ones we as a nation refuse to face head-on. As Samuel L. Jackson reads words from Baldwin’s letters and essays, videos from the march on Selma and the protests in Ferguson play, and photos of Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin flash on the screen.

The title of the film is a slight alteration of a James Baldwin quote from near the end of the film. As with so much of what he said and wrote, it’s a brilliant, difficult statement that we have to grapple with urgently. “What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a n***er in the first place, because I’m not a n***er,” he said. “I’m a man, but if you think I’m a n***er, it means you need it… If I’m not a n***er and you invented him — you, the white people, invented him — then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it’s able to ask that question.”

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Black History Month: The Black Panther Party — Vanguard of a Revolution

I never learned about the Black Panther Party in school, but whenever it was I did first hear about them, I remember thinking only, “They sound dangerous.” As I was a white girl from the suburbs, I suppose that’s not so surprising. After watching Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panther Party: Vanguard of a Revolution, I might even say I was half right. The Panthers were dangerous — dangerous to the system that made black urban life so hard, dangerous to the racist law enforcement officials who brutally kept the system in place, dangerous to the idea that the way things were was the way things had to be.

“We don’t hate nobody because of their color. We hate oppression. We hate murder of black people in our communities.”Bobby Seale, in an early speech

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Black History Month: Belle

I described Belle to a friend as “an 18th-century period piece interrogating race and class — with romance, and pretty dresses.” The poster alone sends a little jolt: here’s a typical Jane Austen adaptation-type poster, with a pretty young woman in a gorgeous dress, in a well-appointed room, hands demurely clasped in front of her, awaiting the man that will be a good match for her. But this pretty young woman isn’t white, as all the others in all the other posters are; she’s black.

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Black History Month: Visual Artists from the 1960s and ’70s

Today was so packed that I’m afraid I haven’t had time to write up anything new for this post, so let me point you back to another post on black artists that I really enjoyed writing and even more enjoyed researching: the Soul of a Nation exhibition at the Tate Modern from the autumn. It was one of the most challenging, upsetting, and thrilling art exhibitions I’ve been to in years. It highlighted artists from across the United States during the period of Black Power — Malcolm X, the Panthers, explicit resistance, self-protection, declarations of self-worth and ability, communal action. Black American visual artists from this time covered the spectrum from paintings to sculptures, abstract to meticulously detailed realist, purposely political to more personal explorations. Many of the issues of representation and artistic responsibility or freedom which were explored then resonate today. Take a look at the artists mentioned in that post and I’m sure you’ll find someone whose work speaks to you.