13th Gives America a Much-Needed History Lesson

Adam Bhala Lough on Ava DuVernay's powerful doc on the roots of African-American mass incarceration – and also on what it leaves out.
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13th, the incredible new Netflix documentary from director Ava DuVernay, begins with President Obama saying in voiceover: “The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Think about that.” What follows is 90 minutes of how America came to be the type of country that puts such a huge percentage of her population behind bars. At its best when it is a historical documentary, 13th is mostly made up of talking head interviews shot in what looks like a pretty standard indoor studio set. With the exception of some musical interludes with stylized typography, the style of this movie is quite plain and almost PBS-like. But style is not the point and would probably have just been distracting from the inconceivable facts on display, facts that maybe 1 percent of our population are aware of because – as anyone who, like me, grew up in the U.S. public school system can testify – we don’t learn these things in school.

Its title referencing the 13th Amendment, 13th traces a line from slavery, through Jim Crow, Nixon’s “war on drugs,” the Clinton administration’s measures (mandatory minimums, “three strikes” and the $30 billion crime bill) that lead to mass incarceration, to the present day and George Zimmerman being acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin on the basis of the stand-your-ground law created by ALEC. During the film’s Jim Crow segment, we see shots of a black man in a coffin with his face beaten to a pulp, MLK preaching for revolution, and disturbing black-and-white film of a tall, slender black man in a suit being beaten by a mob of white men, shoved down a street like some sort of dog that got loose in the neighborhood. This last image could stand as a metaphor for the black experience in this country – white people shoving them around like a pinball, wanting them to go away yet not having anywhere for them to go.

The section on the Bill Clinton presidency is fascinating to watch, such as when Newt Gingrich – in a terrific cameo – explains how Bill got elected: he had to “match the Republicans” in being tough on crime, by amping up the drug war and sentencing. This part of the film is also very interesting in the context of the current Presidential election, and I’m surprised the Clinton campaign let Netflix put this movie out right before the election. If anything, that speaks very highly of Netflix, given that the majority of the mainstream media seems to be under the thumb of the Clinton campaign. (This film never would have premiered on CNN, that’s for sure.)

At one point, the movie backtracks to the ’60s, with a long digression about how black dissent has been thwarted by the government for 50 years and MLK was on the FBI’s most wanted list (in case everyone thought he was some softie); Van Jones reminds us while gangbangers are fighting the “little bitty cops on the street, MLK was fighting the top cop.” This digression doesn’t exactly seem to fit with the narrative of the film, but it’s an interesting and important segment and especially inspiring in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement, which seems almost benign in comparison to the Black Panthers and Malcolm X.

Moving from the past to the present, 13th clearly illustrates how imprisoning citizens is no longer just about race – it’s about money. We also get a glimpse of the future and what is to come after we run out of prison space or finally get fed up burning tax dollars on a broken, failed system: mass surveillance. Though the movie doesn’t explicitly spell it out, the implication is that in the near future, the non-violent criminals of our society will not go to prison but instead will be tracked like animals with GPS chips implanted under their skin, like the one my dog has. They’ll be made to piss in a cup every week, denied the right to vote, to own a gun, to smoke medical weed, you name it. Their every move will be tracked by some anonymous worker (or perhaps a virtual worker in a Third World country) in a windowless office somewhere, reporting every little infraction to the local police who will show up in seconds ready to stop and frisk. It’s a frightening future, and I don’t personally see our current issues with law enforcement getting any better when we ask them to become overseers on a giant surveillance plantation.

One surprising omission from the documentary is any reference to Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. One of the most interesting revelations of Foucault’s book is that in the ’70s there was actually a movement in criminology away from incarceration and toward surveillance – i.e. the probationary system. The movement was not motivated by humanitarian reasons but rather financial ones – it’s fucking expensive to lock someone up, and then house, clothe, and feed that person. Foucault also points out that incarceration came about for humanitarian reasons, believe it or not. Before incarceration, we punished criminals with things like public shaming, torture, stoning, hanging, and other forms of execution. Punishment was public, so everyone could see it, so that we could all understand the consequences of our actions should we be tempted to, say, steal from a shop or cheat on our husband or practice witchcraft. Incarceration replaced these forms of punishment because it was kinder and gentler and – most importantly – private, meaning we could not see the effects of the punishment. The criminal would be convicted in open court, ushered out the back and disappear from view, possibly forever. Put in this light, mass incarceration can be seen simply as a trend in history, a more humanitarian form of punishment than previous methods, but also one that is now losing favor and could be replaced by something even more “humanitarian.”

My only other quibble with the film is that Obama gets off way too easy. In the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness – which would make a great companion piece to 13th – author Michelle Alexander (who also appears in DuVernay’s doc) definitely does not let Obama off the hook. This is a president who has thrown more money at the drug war than both the Bushes: $26 billion in 2016, $2 billion more than in 2014, $4 billion of which goes to incarceration. Plus Obama gave a $187 million raise to the Bureau of Prisons to house drug offenders and a $90 million raise to the DEA – which we pay $3 billion a year. Though incarceration rates have dropped under Obama and he has made positive efforts worth noting, he’s still a centrist Democrat like Clinton, fiscally conservative, a firm believer in big government and he gets off scot-free in 13th for reasons that are beyond me.

13th currently has an oddly low rating on Netflix, especially compared to some of the crap on there that currently has close to 5 stars. This may be due to one of the final sequences in the film – a montage of Trump’s infamous “good old days” speech. It is, in my opinion, the best edited sequence of film this year. DuVernay juxtaposes Trump’s words, uncannily, with footage of the Civil Rights movement. Trump says, “In the good old days, they’d rip him out of that seat so fast,” and we see lunch counter sit-in protestors being literally ripped from their seats by angry white people. It’s a chilling montage that leaves a lump in the throat. Were Trump supporters so horrified by this montage they gave the film 1 star? Did Clinton supporters also give the film a low rating because both Hillary and Bill (though he apologizes to the NAACP) are aired out in the film?

The political boldness of this film makes me hopeful about Netflix’s original documentary slate in the future. Three years or so ago, a lot of my friends in the indie film world were talking shit on Netflix, complaining that they were only acquiring films that catered to the lowest common denominator and the real art films were going places like Fandor (or nowhere at all). I was one of their few die-hard supporters, always arguing back that there is plenty of great content on Netflix if you just look for it. When I heard Lisa Nishimura and Adam Del Deo were starting a doc division at Netflix, I was optimistic, and they haven’t let me down. If there are more docs like 13th coming down the pike in the future, things should look very good for Netflix’s doc division and awards will definitely be streaming in. No pun intended.

Spirit Award-nominated writer/director Adam Bhala Lough has dedicated his career to telling compelling stories, collaborating with interesting people and creating authentic work. Moving between narrative and documentary, his films sit at the nexus of mainstream culture and the arthouse. He specializes in crafting real performances out of non-performers, artists, musicians, athletes and celebrities, while bringing Oscar-winning actors to the table as well. His six features have played at Sundance, Tribeca, SXSW, Edinburgh and Karlovy Vary, to name a few. (Photo credit: Betty Bastidas)