Avu DuVernay’s latest documentary 13th comes at an important junction in American history. The 2016 presidential elections confirmed that divisions of race and class continue to be central and defining features of contemporary US society. After all, Donald Trump ran on a platform of open bigotry, courting a reactionary following and emboldening the so-called ‘alt-right’ movement; a euphemism for white nationalism.
13th is a gut-wrenching journey through the history of mass incarceration in America. It illustrates, through lucid interviewees and a visually-creative storytelling approach, how the prison industrial complex grew out of the legacies of the post-Civil War era and came to earn the US a globally notorious distinction.
“One out of four human beings,” explains activist, author and attorney Van Jones in the film, “with their hands on bars, shackled, in the world, are locked up here, in the land of the free.”
13th was the first documentary ever screened on opening-night of the New York Film Festival, and for good reason. It’s a portentous look at the historical disenfranchisement of black America and the rise of the ‘punishing state’, described by Henry Giroux as “the circuits of state repression, surveillance and disposability” linking the fate of blacks, Latinos, Native Americans and poor whites to a “crime youth complex, which now serves as the default solution to major social problems.”
The film takes its title from the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which in 1864 abolished slavery and inaugurated the Reconstruction Era. Located within the amendment, however, was one crucial loophole: involuntary servitude was outlawed, except as punishment for a crime.
As DuVernay shows, after the Civil War, slavery was simply remodelled as a system of perpetual detention and scapegoating for many people of colour. In the words of Jelani Cobb, a New Yorker staff writer and professor who shines as one of the film’s strongest voices, it accelerated a “rapid transition to a mythology of black criminality.”
From the Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation in the southern US—which continued in force until 1965—to D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, the imagery of racialized predators ensured white supremacy would reign indefinitely. Michelle Alexander, author of the renowned 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, underscores the morbidity of this social order:
So many aspects of the old Jim Crow are suddenly legal again once you’ve been branded a felon. And so it seems that in America we haven’t so much ended racial caste, but simply redesigned it.
Before arriving at the current state of affairs in which the US holds 25 per cent of the world’s prisoners, DuVernay leads viewers through the preceding century, examining a line of presidents from Nixon’s “law and order” to Reagan’s “war on drugs” to the 1994 crime bill passed by Bill Clinton. The latter introduced mandatory minimum sentencing and the three-strike rule, in turn almost doubling the prison population and bringing it above 2 million by 1999.
13th captures the political irresponsibility of both Republican and Democratic administrations to improve relations with racialized communities and achieve some semblance of equality within the criminal justice apparatus. The murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton by Chicago Police in 1969 and the targeting of dissidents like Angela Davis are two prominent examples. Distressingly, such acts have continued in overt form. Police brutality and the almost weekly murder of blacks at the hands of law enforcement are distinguishing features of modern American society.
Perhaps most disturbing is DuVernay’s focus upon the corporatization of the US prison system and its continued reliance upon ultra cheap labour to prop up big domestic firms. Household names like Wal-Mart, Victoria’s Secret, Aramark and Whole Foods are just a few of the culprits. Prisoners producing products for these corporations earn six times less than the federal minimum wage.
Then there’s ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a business-dominated lobby group that’s been behind many laws that have increased incarceration rates, expanded for-profit prisons and overstuffed them with inmates. DuVernay spends a good deal of time explaining ALEC’s contribution to mass incarceration, it’s history of support for anti-immigrant state laws and truth-in-sentencing policy.
In all, 13th proves that historical awareness is indispensable to a strong understanding of the present. Perhaps even more significantly, it teaches that that awareness can be a potent weapon against authoritarian rule. If the popular appeals of Black Lives Matter are any indication, that type of radical messaging is more important than ever.
Watch Amy Goodman’s interview with DuVernay here.