Movie Review: ’13th’ Is A Powder Keg That Burns Down The Walls Of Racism

Ava DuVernay’s new documentary ’13th’ is easily one of the most important films you will see this year! While many are talking about the controversy surrounding Nate Parker’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’, we should be talking about the larger ramifications of slaveries transformation into what it is today. This is what DuVernay expertly conveys in this brilliant documentary. A film that is equally as important for the things it doesn’t say as the things it does. 

The essence of the films case is that slavery was transformed by the 13th Amendment. It shows that, while that Amendment to the Constitution did end slavery, it also began a new era of slavery by incarceration. A very clear history of laws and prison being used as ways to put blacks back in chains is made. A history that lasted from the minutes after supposed freedom all the way until today. The picture is clear and vivid. It is also completely undeniable. Especially, in the time before the Civil Rights Act. 

It is after that landmark bill that things get more difficult to convey, but the film makes its point with grace and clarity. DuVernay was a filmmaker I discovered because of the great Roger Ebert and I think he would have been so proud of what this brilliant filmmaker she has become. It has always been a challenging task for blacks to clearly show the connections of the “War on Drugs” to their continued oppression without conservatives bashing it as propaganda. But she tackles it head on by interviewing some of the staunchest conservatives, like Grover Norquist, and allowing their point of view to be juxtaposed with a greater truth. They truly look like fools here.

You see, the film paints a portrait of a Nixon Administration that utilized the drug epidemic as a way to crack down on blacks and some of the hippies who were against the Vietnam war. This bleed directly into the Reagan years and his insane war on drug use ramped up to full throttle. It is important to note that there was and still is a drug problem in this nation, but instead of treating it like the addiction problem that it is and help people seek rehab, we made it a crime that could ruin your life. And everyone involved knew that blacks would get the overwhelming brunt of the punishment.

The movie also points out that a rise in crime did take place during the period leading to and after the Civil Rights Act. Much of this was drug related and there certainly were horrible monsters that preyed on children to get them addicted to drugs for monetary gain. However, the massive amount of blacks we sent to jail for simple marijuana possession in the 70’s and 80’s can largely be attested to the rise of a criminal community (not to mention a century of oppression) that would eventually lead to the horrible gangs that made up the 90’s. Which is one of the things that the movie skims over in the interest of making its point. 

It is at this point in the film where DuVernay shows us the seeds of the prison industrial complex we see today. And she lays it pretty squarely on the feet of Bill Clinton. To be fair, she provides a bit of context for why the Clinton’s felt that they needed to be tough on crime politically, but skims over the actual level of violent crime during that time period and how much it came down during the 90’s. She likely does this to preserve the very correct view of blacks as the victims of legislation, but it left me wondering a lot. After the republicans had fucked up the war on drugs so royally for decades, what could have actually been done to combat the violent gangs and drug dealers of that time period without increasing the problem. Sadly, it’s something we will never know.

What did happen was a crime bill that simultaneously decreased violent crime and destroyed our judicial system for the last several decades. It was a bill that created 3 strikes laws and lead to drug users being incarcerated for lifetimes. It was a bill that created mandatory minimum sentences for crimes and destroyed the trial by jury system we rightfully covet. It was a bill that has lead to so much incarceration that we literally make up 25% of the worlds incarcerated citizens. I write the word we, but the true victims are 40% black. It is impossible for anyone to deny the impact of the crime bill of the Clinton Era or the drug wars on colored people during the Nixon and Reagan Era (or the tax cuts that created a whole new world of poverty for all citizens). 

The one consolidation for the Clinton’s here is that they are trying to make amends. Bill came out recently to say that much of the crime bill was a mistake and Hillary is trying to enact sweeping criminal justice reform that would reverse much of their wrongs. The republicans show little to no remorse for the racist policies they have enacted and only seem to want to make them worse under a President Trump. This does not forgive the Democrats, but it does show that they are trying to be part of the solution. 

Which leads to the final chapter of the film. And that is the current structure of American racism and how it has manifested itself for decades with police brutality. This may be something that you have heard a lot of in the last year, but it’s a very real issue. And by the time you get to it in this movie you should be quite furious. I was brought to tears by the story of an innocent black kid who spent 3 years in the hell hole of prison because he was waiting for a trial. Honestly, if this doesn’t paint the picture of modern injustice for you than you need open your eyes. 

This documentary is one of the most important films you are likely to watch this year. It’s a fast paced and thorough look at the modern story of slavery in these United States and it’s a powder keg that’s meant to burn the barn down. DuVernay is a director with a clear vision and an important agenda to push. All of you who are disgusted by slavery and wonder how people could have just sat back to watch it happen should all open your eyes. It is happening right now and we need to do something about it.

This film is in limited theaters and on Netflix.

Nathan Ligon

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