African American men make up “6.5% of the U.S’s population yet 40.2% of the U.S’s prisoners”. That being, not only does the United States have the highest incarceration rate in the world but 1:3 black men will go to prison in their lifetime.
Ava DuVernay’s 13th is a history lesson in systematic and institutionalized racism.
Disclaimer: As a white person about to discuss black culture and its history in America; I am definitely aware of my ignorance in comprehending a struggle that is not my own, as well as the stories and experiences that I will never completely understand. But that attempt to weave those loose ends together is exactly why 13th should be seen by everyone.
13th is an extremely solid, powerful and easily understood historical and political introduction for anyone and everybody about racism, the criminalization of people of color and the American prison system. In all honesty, as someone who feels pretty aware of both the invisible and blatant divides amongst groups of people and individuals, this film still undoubtedly opened my ever awakening eyes. It took facts, ideas and historical moments that I had previously been aware of; solidified and expanded them in a way that increasingly broadened my awareness while provoking new and bigger questions.
This film taught me how to better discuss my ideas, thoughts, analysis and passions to other individuals (both woke and still sleeping) with the enlightenment of specifics, facts and details I may not have fully understood before.
“Systems of oppression are durable, and they tend to reinvent themselves.”
It is titled after the 13th Amendment of the Constitution; the amendment that is idolized for abolishing slavery and unpaid labor… except in the case of criminality or servitude to justice. 13th maps out the ways in which Government has found and created the loopholes to continuously imprison and enslave people, especially people of color.
13th documents and fluidly untangles the events that led to the normalization of systematic racism and the criminalization of people of color since the elusive emancipation proclamation and the “freeing” of the enslaved. It threads together the loose ends of social inequality, the American prison complex, 1960’s-70’s social activists movements, the ever dominating capitalism of governmental America and other injustices that infiltrate so many of our daily lives, consciousnesses and social media feeds. This film will awaken even those most revered for their woke timeline shares and ‘regrams’; for the 13th documents precisely the ways in which we have today collectively found ourselves in this societal struggle and imbalance of powers.
The film begins post-civil war, with the discussion of the “end of slavery” in 1865 when African American’s are “deemed free”, yet both individual and institutional racism continues to run rampant and the mythology of white vs. black, good vs. bad is engrained into the white mentality. This mythology is reinforced through the means of film (1915’s Birth Of A Nation) and culture and terrorism (KKK rising and in turn lynchings and police force). From the beginning, media and white culture portrays African Americans as criminals and are arrested in mass for minor crimes and burdened with unpaid labor, strangely enough, just in time to help in the rebuilding of a dying southern economy.
From this point on, discrimination is legalized through Jim Crow laws and segregation, which in turn leads to the era of the civil rights movement. From the 1970’s and forward African American’s, both prominent civil rights activists and, more or less, ordinary citizens, are continuily portrayed as “criminal and dangerous” through politics and the media, mirroring the blatant racism in the catalyst film, Birth Of A Nation. This is reinforced with the enactment of many different policies and laws put into place that silently replaced Jim Crow law. Definably, during the presidencies between Nixon and Clinton.
Policies such as; Nixon’s “war on crime and drugs”, which truly meant- war on activism, justice and communities of color; to Bush’s 3 strikes law, mandatory minimums and finally Clinton’s 1994 Federal crime bill which caused a mass expansion of the prison system, as well as the militarization of the police state.. the very same establishments still in place today.
The film sheds light on the reality of what was being fought for during 1970’s civil rights activism movements, in comparison to what the media was falsely displaying to white America about these leaders. What the media depicted was an over representation of African American’s as criminals, including the representation of their leaders more so of a terrorist groups rather than advocators for the underrepresented and oppressed. This era of change during the 1970’s is vital to the social movement we are experiencing today, as these men and woman are the backbone to so many of the strong ongoing movements, from feminism to black lives matter and their intersecting ideas for equality and integrity.
As people like Fred Hampton and Malcom X became stronger in their voices and followers, government became stronger in their fear and attempts to strip out entire generations of African American leaders who were revealing the truth about unjust divides and racial policies. This was enacted through the use of FBI targeting outspoken individuals and ultimately assassination or incarceration.
On the other side, the film reflects on forces such as Angela Davis and Assata Shakur who managed to beat false media allegations and, like Davis, took it a step further to bring the power of her experience and voice to the courts, the news and in turn, the world. These people, whether their time was unjustly cut short or still speak out today, changed the way millions of people analyze society and the laws around us. They were some of the first to fight for both undervalued minority groups and human beings as a whole; for this it is necessary to go back to their lessons, their experiences and struggles; because they are the stepping stones to fighting the continuing struggles we all face today.
Lastly, I would like to touch on the films lessons on the power of corporations in politics and their ruling and fueling in the creation of the harmful policies that aid in the functioning of mass incarceration. Although many of us are probably very aware that government and capitalism no doubt go hand in hand, it is less often we are educated on the specific groups and corporations that disempower us.
ALEC is a 4 decade old lobbying group that consists of both politicians and corporations; They had a hand in the passing of bills that both privatized the prison system as well as allowed outlets for the law to widely harass and incarcerate individuals. Bills such as SB1017, Stand Your Ground and Mandatory Minimums. In turn, the more people imprisoned by similar bills, the more opportunity ALEC has to capitalize the prison system by inflating prison prices with the many ALEC affiliated corporations whom provide something to the system; Provisions such as, food, phone usage and the enslaving of inmates (who receive very little income for their work) to create products and commodities in turn for these companies. It is exactly these groups that hold the power to disenfrancise the voices of the people that in turn bear the brunt of their billion dollar slave fueled wealth.
Art by Katie Wohl
“People say all the time, ‘well, I don’t understand how people could have tolerated slavery?’ ‘How could they have made peace with that?’ ‘How could people have gone to a lynching and participated in that?’ ‘That’s so crazy, if I was living at that time I would never have tolerated anything like that.
And the truth is we are living in this time, and we are tolerating it.”
It is our role, our work to identify the core of these injustices. To find the means to represent those who have suffered from these socially normative oppressions. Allow yourself the ability to witness and to acknowledge what and who capitalism attempts so poorly to stigmatize in justifying their selfish greed. From Kalief Browder, Sandra Bland and Trayvon Martin; Educate yourself on those we have unjustly lost in direct consequences of the policies, false media and corporations mentioned above. Watch 13th, create that awareness, ask those much needed questions. Share this film, it’s lessons and this ever persisting movement with your partners, your peers, your parents and your elders. Utilize your voice, your autonomy to choose and stand up for whats true. Protect each other.
You can view 13th on Netflix.
8 Facts You Should Know About the Criminal Justice System and People of Color from The Center for American Progress
The Hidden History of ALEC and Prison Labor from The Nation