Directed by Ava DuVernay.
2016. Not Rated, 100 minutes.
Henry Louis Gates
The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution has always been hailed as one of those achievements that helped make Abraham Lincoln, arguably, the greatest President our country has ever known. It's the amendment that abolished slavery. As such, I never really questioned that it was a completely good thing. On the other hand, as a black male, I've come to understand the entire judicial system is set up against me, and has been since well before The United States of America was even a country. The evidence is everywhere around me. However, I never linked it to The 13th Amendment, the very thing that gave me freedom. Ava DuVernay's documentary does precisely this. It starts with the words of the amendment, itself: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." The italics is mine, but it highlights the loophole that's been exploited since the end of the Civil War. 13th details the evolution of that exploitation since that time.
To accomplish her goal, DuVernay gives voice to numerous scholars, politicians, revolutionaries, and other knowledgeable people and orders them in such a way that it reconstructs the system piece by piece right before our eyes, keeping exposed the connective tissue between that system and the 13th Amendment. It's a compelling piece of cinema from the outset. It also makes no bones about the fact that race is the one issue that cannot be left out of any discussion on who we are, as Americans. Each person speaks eloquently about the subject at hand, and that's part of the reason this is such a powerful film. These aren't people ranting and raving about conspiracy theories. These are people armed with facts, sitting and (mostly) calmly discussing an issue. On those occasions when voices are raised, there is good reason and real passion behind it. It is clear these people have something to be upset about.
Another reason 13th effortlessly carries so much weight is because a number of the faces in agreement with the film's assessment are white. Movements led by African-Americans, or in favor of African-American civil rights, have historically been more successful when they have been endorsed by Caucasians on some level. Given the power structure in this country, it makes sense. Those in charge are more likely to listen to people they see as their equals, even if only because of skin color. White Abolitionists were key to end of the slavery. The fact Martin Luther King, Jr. had much stronger support from whites meant his movement was the one that had an in to the White House, as opposed to the Elijah Muhammad/Malcolm X led Nation of Islam, or the Black Panther Party that followed. In 13th, we don't just get white academics, we get someone of stature, like Newt Gingrich admitting double standards. We also get admissions from those who worked closely with President Nixon.
Eventually, the film becomes an examination of the modern-day prison system and what may be the next direction that system takes. Being something that is still ravaging Black and Latino communities makes this the most tangible evil discussed, and therefore, the scariest part of the film. For me, that terror is very real. According to Bryan Stevenson, "The Bureau of Justice reported that one in three young black males is expected to go to jail or prison during his lifetime," It sounds like a ridiculous number, and it is, but I merely have to think about my own family, and look around the neighborhood where I live, to realize it's not exaggerated. Without going into details, I know too many people who have gone to prison. Some went for minor crimes, others a little more major. It seems none of them, even those who have fully served their sentences, ever seem to stop paying their debt to society for various reasons. Many of them are detailed in the film.
With that number in mind, one in three, I am something of a statistical marvel. I am an African-American male, over forty, married, never divorced, no children with anyone other than my wife, college educated, employed, no criminal record, no arrests of any kind. I've not lived a perfect life, but it's been pretty much on the straight and narrow. Instead of feeling like I've accomplished some great thing, I realize I'm always a moment away from becoming one of the ones. To a large segment of the population I automatically look suspicious. Some of the people who feel that way about me are in law enforcement. I've been stopped on the road a number of times by police who have "randomly" ran my plates while sitting behind me in traffic, once because a vehicle that looks "just like this" was used in a drive-by. Really. Years ago, I watched a Dave Chappelle stand-up special where he talked about things he heard after he bought a police scanner. The first thing was, "Calling all cars. Calling all cars. Be on the lookout for a black male between 4'7" and 6'8"." As the old saying goes, a lot of truth is said in jest. 13th has plenty of truth, almost none of it is said in jest. It's fascinating, hard-hitting, brutal, and much-needed. To some viewers, it will be full of shocking revelations. To others, such as myself, it's confirmation.
13th was also reviewed by Surrender to the Void. Click here to check it out.