Friday, May 11, 2018

13th: A Review


The abolition of slavery via the 13th Amendment to the Constitution is something that most people would think has been a good thing.  Ava DuVernay, however, sees a major flaw with one proviso in the 13th Amendment: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.  Out of the highlighted text, DuVernay argues in 13th, has come a de facto slave system targeting men of color, which continues to this day.  One can agree or disagree with DuVernay's various assertions, but 13th covers its views well and opens up important discussions on issues such as profiling and mass incarceration.

After the passage of the 13th Amendment, 13th contends that former slaves were soon arrested on minor charges such as vagrancy and put on the chain gang, thus informally reinstituting slavery.  Over time, each time an advance was made for African-Americans in particular, the system found a way around it to continue taking advantage of the 'loophole' in the abolition of slavery.  There was the lynching of African-Americans, Jim Crow legislation, and later on the 'war on drugs', all of which reinforced the notion of the African-American, particularly African-American men as CRIMINAL.

It should be pointed out that every time someone utters the word CRIMINAL, the word 'CRIMINAL' appears on screen in large text.

As the prison population spikes in the past forty years, DuVernay and most of her interview subjects point to a new form of slavery: the prison-industrial complex, aided by a mix of overt racism and greed of private corporations under the umbrella of ALEC.  ALEC, the American Legislative Executive Council, is a semi-secret organization that funds and writes legislation that will advance the goals of the various corporations that belong to it.  One of them is the Correctional Corporation of America, a private prison system that uses the incarcerated men as de facto slave labor. 

To finally overthrow this newest American slavery, the Black Lives Matter movement is required.

Image result for 13th documentaryWith few exceptions, such as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist, 13th has a series of left-wing speakers on the subject, ranging from Van Jones to Angela Davies.  I mention this because one should be aware that 13th is of a particular viewpoint and to suggest that it is impartial is wrong. 

That does not make the film automatically flawed.  It just means that your views on some subjects will depend on if you think Angela Davies is a heroine, or you hold Black Panther leader Fred Hampton as a martyr, as Van Jones does.  If you do, then 13th will validate some of your views.  If you don't, then you're more likely to dismiss some of them.

That would be a disservice, for 13th has some solid points to make, particularly on the prison-industrial complex.  The explosion of incarcerations in the United States is not, at least in my view but the view of 13th, due to a calculated mass suppression of minorities.  It might be due to the excess of laws and a misguided idea that locking up people for life for rather small crimes. 

At times, DuVernay reaches way too far in making her case.  The mixing of old footage of blacks being assaulted during the Civil Rights era with then-candidate Donald Trump's various rallies is effective, but I wonder if it is totally accurate.  I sense DuVernay holds that Trump is the new de facto Ku Klux Klan leader and that his words were, to use today's term, 'dog-whistles' to this groundswell of racism.  I, however, cannot quite reach the conclusions DuVernay is leading us with this mixing of old footage with Trump rallies that America continues to be this cauldron of bigotry, using prisons and this 'loophole' to continue the enslavement and oppression of people of color.

And I say this as a Never Trumper.

I give credit to DuVernay for having a great zeal and passion for her subject, though it is hard to find, as Jones if memory serves correct, that Assata Shakur (currently on the lam in Cuba for having been convicted of killing a New Jersey police officer) is a heroine and leader of a movement.  

Image result for 13th documentaryThere is certainly fascinating information to cull from 13th: for example, the KKK cross-burning ceremony was not original to them, but borrowed from D. W. Griffith's masterpiece/vulgarity The Birth of a Nation.  The increase in the prison population, the various incidents between African-Americans and predominantly white police forces, all are worthy of examining.  At times, DuVernay cannot help herself when a more restrained manner might have helped: flashing CRIMINAL every time the word was uttered was, to my mind, gilding the lily.

13th also does not touch on how culture has shaped the views of African-Americans, at least beyond The Birth of a Nation.  Is there something to the glorification of gang culture and 'gangsta rap' that contributes in how non-African-Americans perceive blacks and African-Americans perceive each other?

As a side note, I was fascinated by Kevin Gannon, a history professor interviewed for 13th.  It was not so much what he said that fascinated me, it was the fact that his hands and arms were filled with tattoos.  History professors have changed much from when I went to university, but there it is.

One may accept 13th at face value.  One can dismiss 13th altogether.  Both would, in my view, be wrong.  13th opens up a conversation about various issues, some of which perhaps are too large for one film and worthy of their own.  However, 13th is a conversation-starter, and it's one worth having.


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