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.
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.