Ava DuVernay, who earned critical acclaim for her 2014 film Selma, entered the documentary field with 13th, a provocative take on the nation’s prison system and the devastating racial inequality. DuVernay argues that the legacy of slavery is responsible for the mass incarceration of African-Americans, who are disproportionately represented behind bars today.
Now, as thousands of people line the streets in protest of police brutality and institutionalised racism following the death of unarmed African-American man George Floyd, Netflix has made DuVernays’ documentary available to stream online free.
DuVernay goes further by maintaining that those incarcerated today are victims of a new kind of slavery. She reviews the shameful history of the discriminatory treatment of African-Americans as a whole—and specifically references how blacks were unfairly targeted, especially in the South, to compensate for the lost economic advantage of the slave system.
DuVernay explains how after reconstruction, blacks were intentionally arrested on false or trumped-up charges and often found themselves receiving draconian sentences that kept them incarcerated for years. Blacks were used as a labour force in a system that demanded work without compensation and perpetuated a system of de facto slavery.
DuVernay then reviews the history of both economic and cultural discrimination perpetrated against African-Americans up until the Civil Rights era in which most became economically disenfranchised. DuVernay masterfully injects clips from D.W. Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation’ (the 1915 film praised by President Wilson who watched it a private screening at the White House), which probably was most responsible for the spreading of the noxious and racist notion of the inherent criminality of African-Americans.
The theme of inherent black criminality was reinforced during the Civil Rights era when leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks were jailed and branded as criminals (going to jail soon became a badge of protest by those opposing the racist establishment). 13th illustrates the turbulence of the Civil Rights era featuring disturbing footage of a black man being assaulted by a mob of whites in broad daylight (later the same footage is juxtaposed with comments from Donald Trump at one of his campaign rallies urging followers to attack a black protester).
DuVernay makes it clear that it was the 1970s, with Nixon’s ‘Law and Order’ policies, that led to the expanding numbers of African-Americans in the prison system. Quotations from Nixon’s henchmen, including John Ehrlichman, confirm that blacks were intentionally targeted during this period.
Nixon’s ‘war on drugs’ and the subsequent draconian Republican policies during the Reagan Administration were probably most responsible for the startling increase of African-Americans in the prison system. Ironically, Duvernay trots out Republican Newt Gingrich, as a critic of America’s failed war on drugs policy. It’s Gingrich who bemoans the unfair disparity in sentencing between offenders charged with sale or possession of crack, as opposed to “mere” cocaine.
DuVernay is also highly critical of Bill and Hillary Clinton—Hillary with her references to “super predators” and Bill’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 responsible for reprehensible policies including mandatory minimums (taking away discretion from judges in sentencing) and the “three strikes you’re out” law, targeting some convicted of non-violent felonies. While Clinton later apologises for the deleterious effects of the 1994 bill, the damage cannot be undone. Perhaps the most revelatory information one takes away from this informative piece concerns the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative think tank responsible for model legislation on behalf of corporations. ALEC was most responsible for the development of private prison companies—thus mass incarceration was seen as a good thing since now individuals could profit from such a system. Later ALEC began advocating for the privatising of probation and parole services, a new way to meld corporate profit with burgeoning prison populations.
Despite her cogent analysis of what caused the disproportionate numbers of African-Americans in the prison system, DuVernay falls short on offering any alternatives to solve what has become such a vexing problem. There is no acknowledgement here there is a class of violent criminals that must be incarcerated no matter what. The call for alternatives to incarceration, such as drug and educational programs, is fine. But even with the introduction of those programs, there is no guarantee that offenders will take advantage of them.
Given the legacy of slavery and years of discrimination, it’s understandable why so many African-Americans have found themselves a statistic in the prison system. Ultimately, however, it’s the individual offender who must decide whether to become a law-abiding citizen or not. The substitution of draconian policies with more humane ones is certainly a worthy goal—but will they still work? DuVernay seems to think they will. More skeptical students of human nature may not agree.
Watch the film in its entirety, below.