There are moments in “13th” — a lot of moments — when you feel the full historical sweep of America’s injustices hit you like a taser to the chest. That’s an intentionally ugly metaphor but an apt one for a documentary that with lucid and logical fury traces the rise of our country’s prison-industrial complex and its decimation of Black America. “13th” is among the very best movies of 2016, and when you consider that our prison population has grown from 300,000 in 1972 to 2.3 million in 2016 — and that black men represent 6.5 percent of the general population but 40.2 percent of the prison population — it’s probably the most important.
Does it matter that you can’t see “13th” in a movie theater, outside of downtown Manhattan’s IFC Center? Not in the least. After opening the New York Film Festival on Sept. 30, the new film from Ava DuVernay (“Selma”) is playing from now until forever on Netflix. The upside of the revolution in video-on-demand, it’s becoming increasingly clear, is that films that might find a tough time securing a theatrical release can now go directly to the home screen, where they can play to a theoretical audience of billions. The downside is that without the marketing budgets and media spotlight that attend most theatrical releases, a streaming title can fall through the cracks.
“13th” is in little danger of doing that: The reviews have been spectacular and Netflix is highlighting the film on its splash screens (for the moment). Still, it may not have crossed your radar yet, so here’s my three cents: Watch this movie. DuVernay takes the long, long historical view, marshaling statistics, archival materials, and nearly 30 historians, academics, activists, and politicians — including some genuinely surprising names — to buttress her case that our current system of mass incarceration is a direct, Constitutionally enabled descendent of slavery.
Obvious to some, less obvious to others, and, anyway, “13th” lays it out with pitiless clarity. The title comes from the 13th Amendment to the Constitution — the one that abolished slavery and whose passage in 1865 was dramatized in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” a few years back. As the new documentary points out early on, there was a loophole: Slavery shall not exist in the United States “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
“History is not just stuff that happens by accident,” someone says here, and “13th” presents that clause as “an embedded tool,” one that guaranteed the continued shackling of 4 million people who were legally no longer property. DuVernay connects the dots of 150 years of US history, beginning with the “myth of black criminality” that arose in the post-Civil War era, that fed into fears of black-on-white rape (when the historical reality tended to be the other way around), and that resulted in the mass arrests of newly freed African-Americans for “loitering” and “vagrancy”.
D.W. Griffith’s 1915 blockbuster, “The Birth of a Nation,” fanned the flames of the myth and led to a reborn Ku Klux Klan, a wave of lynchings across the South, and a Great Migration to the North, here recast as a generational fleeing of mob violence and entrenched Jim Crow second-class status.
“13th” passes through the civil rights years, when, in the words of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, “being arrested became a noble thing,” into the Nixon and Reagan eras, when “law and order” and the “war on drugs” became code words for controlling and containing the country’s underclass. Drugs became a criminal rather than a health issue, “crime” became synonymous with “race,” and the late Nixon aide John Ehrlichman is shown in an interview admitting “Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
As the decades pass, “13th” keeps an eye on the prison population rising, rising, rising, through the Bush and Clinton years, Willie Horton and fears of “super-predators,” mandatory-sentencing laws that tied judges’ hands and punished (black) crack smokers far more harshly than (white) coke sniffers; the Three Strikes law, which puts repeat offenders behind bars for life; the militarization of America’s police forces; stop-and-frisk; Stand Your Ground; Trayvon Martin; citizen videos and the deaths they capture. By the time Newt Gingrich — Newt Gingrich! — turns up to acknowledge that mandatory sentencing laws “fundamentally violated a sense of fairness” and that “the objective reality is that virtually no one who is white understands the reality of being black in America,” the weight of evidence has you flattened in your seat.
As DuVernay brings her argument to the present day, we hear about the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-sponsored lobbying group that writes laws for Republican state and federal legislators. We learn that the prison-industrial complex is big business and a growth industry, with the private Corrections Corporation of America earning revenues of $1.7 billion in 2012 and vendors like Securus providing prison phone systems that overcharge for inmate calls.
We witness the corporatization of a bail system that sends poor people to jail for the crime of not having money and the abuse of the legal system in which 95 percent of prosecutors are white and 97 percent of cases end with plea bargains and prison time because a trial is presented as a worse punishment. We see companies like J.C. Penney and Victoria’s Secret use prisoners as a free labor pool. We hear African-American neighborhoods described as enemy-occupied territories and African-American men as enemy combatants without rights.
The voices heard here are eloquent and steady. Some of them come with familiar names: Gates, Gingrich, Senator Cory Booker, activist-scholar Angela Davis (who we learn in one throwaway reminiscence grew up playing with the girls who died in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing). Others are less well-known authors and faces on the spectrum of criminal justice reform. The urgency that courses through this documentary is that things actually can change if knowledge can be turned into momentum and momentum can become legislation.
For many that knowledge, frankly, will start with “13th.” The film reminds us that one in three black men will likely spend some of their life in prison, a statistic that deserves to be as outraging as it in fact is. But they don’t need to see “13th.” The rest of us do.