Last week, Ava DuVernay's documentary 13th premiered on Netflix. The film documents America's history of incarceration since the passing of the 13th Amendment and examines the political prowess that has precipitated our country's prison industrial complex. It's a visceral dissection of how slavery has evolved from a barbaric labor system to a privatized structure of extortion. Complete with archival footage, interviews with scholars, activists (a few formerly incarcerated), educators, politicians, and statistics, DuVernay provides a necessary narrative that is enlightening as much as it is infuriating. Here are a few of my thoughts:
1. Ava DuVernay Is A Shero
There's no other way I can put this. Ava DuVernay is a gotdamn super(s)hero. There isn't anything this woman can't do, cinematically. I've been a fan of her since I stumbled across I Will Follow, and the care, intelligence, and craftsmanship DuVernay exercises in her films is awe inspiring. She understands when and how to evoke emotion, utilizing timely imagery, and dialogue to tell incredibly nuanced stories about Black people. Her treatment of 13th is no different with the finished product serving as a well-seasoned, knowledgeable observation of how our country continues to indomitably disenfranchise people of color courtesy of the very Amendment that secured our freedom.
2. This Is The Context To Black Lives Matter
One of the strongest attributes of this film is that it provides context to the ubiquitousness of police brutality within our country. Police abuse of power was not created in vacuum; it is a product of the system that employs it. Law enforcement is merely a fabric of a larger construct that is predicated on over criminalizing citizens who reside in impoverished neighborhoods; mainly people of color. The film provides pertinent information about how our Executive and Legislative branches of government effectively financed and incentivized municipal police forces to raid Black neighborhoods without cause, justification, or consequence by inciting fear with clever buzz words such as "Public Enemy Number One," "Just Say No," and "Super Predator."
3. The Music Is Phenomenal
The soundtrack throughout the film is nothing short of amazing. Naturally, it's mostly hip-hop, as rap music has a distinguished history of detailing the many transgressions of our justice system. From The Roots' "Criminal", Killer Mike's "Reagan", and Dead Prez's "Behind Enemy Line" to Nas' "Last Words" and Nina Simone's "Work Song", each track beautifully compliments the film's central narrative. Common's bars during the closing credits — presumably written just for the purpose of this documentary — serves as a catharsis to the film's heavy subject matter.
4. Prison Isn't Just A Place For Criminals, It's Also For The Poor
While the film mostly investigates the racial biases that have shaped our country's flawed penal system, it also addresses another prevalent issue: the vilification of innocent Black people. The most disturbing example is Kalief Browder, a Bronx teenager who was imprisoned without conviction for three years for allegedly stealing a backpack. During his incarnation, Kalief was put in solitary confinement and was routinely beaten, both by fellow inmates and guards tasked with protecting him. Upon his release, Crowder told his grim story before tragically taking his own life. The unnecessary trauma this young man endured is heart-wrenching. It's a tragedy. But it's all too common. Mainly because there are innocent people who don't have enough money to fund their defense. Plus, with police exercising "Stop & Frisk" practices, and the emergence of mandatory minimums, too many people are pleading out for crimes they didn't commit. Basically, it's either you plead guilty because you don't want to go away for the mandatory minimum, or you seek a trial and stay locked up because you can't afford bail.
5. I Wish This Was A Series
When I watch or read information that I'm prone to agree with, I tend to become acquiescent about it. I frequently ask questions like, Am I exercising my own cognitive biases? or Did I find this compelling because it was factual (which it was) or because I'm Black (which I also am)? This stream of consciousness also leads me to conjure prospective arguments from those who are prone to oppose the information that I just absorbed — mainly, White people. One quarrel that I can easily anticipate is the "If Black people don't want to go to prison maybe they shouldn't commit crimes" argument. It's similar to the assertion that "If Black people don't want to get shot by police they should just submit to authority."
I'm not going to waste time examining the "prisons are are still majority White" debate, because, well, that's just dumb. Miss me with the bullshit. Thus, to completely eradicate this asinine claim I wish this documentary was apart of a series that included other films about how institutional racism has shaped our society. In this proposed series, I wish there existed a film that examined how discriminatory housing practices and predatory real estate developers effectively created "ghettos" and reasons why they occupy so much crime, such as the crippling economic decay, nutritional deficiency, and grossly underfunded school systems. That would be dope. And POWERFUL!!!
6. Bill Clinton Wasn't Shit
Most of my childhood I frequently overheard adults state that Bill Clinton was one of the best Presidents for Black people in American history. I distinctly remember comedians across the country joking about about how Clinton was the closest thing to a Black President this country would ever see — before this smooth-talking brother from Hawaii came along — mostly because he played the saxophone and slept with an intern. But since I've grown old enough to know better I can't imagine why someone would ever fix their mouth to say some shit like that. President Bill Clinton wasn't great for Black folks. At all. Especially not after he passed the 1994 crime bill (or the 1996 welfare reform bill). He was a Conservative Democrat whose policies did little to help the advancement of African-Americans. The main reason many Black folks voted for President Clinton wasn't out of admiration, but rather sheer desperation; African-Americans didn't want four more years of a Republican regime that sought to disenfranchise them while White folks got rich. (Yay, capitalism!) Aside from appointing four Black Cabinet secretaries, staunchly supporting affirmative action, and befriending Vernon Jordan, I'm not sure Bill Clinton did much of anything else to help people of color.
7. Black Folks Should Really Be Paid Some Gotdamn Reparations
I'm not interested in after-the-fact apologies or inconsequential admissions of guilt. Y'all can keep that shit. The only remedy that would even come close to making this country whole (for the first time EVER) is to give reparations to Black folks for all the free labor our ancestors have provided to this nation's economy. Seriously, just pay us. Or, at the very least, fund our pursuit of higher education, either trade schools or collegiate studies, by providing full scholarships to every Black student upon acceptance into the institution of their choice. Then, retroactively pay all student loans for Black students who have attended college. It doesn't even matter if they graduated. If they got student loan debt, clear it. Period. It's a long shot from properly compensating African-Americans for all the trauma we've endured for generations, but at least it's a start.
8. Capitalism Is A Bitch
In what I'm sure will only aid conspiracy theorists' claim in the existence of the Illuminati, 13th exposes the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative organization composed of lawmakers and corporations that seeks to push forward initiatives of its elite members. The organization, whose membership includes the likes of AT&T, FedEx, and ExxonMobil, is tasked with influencing, in some case outright writing, legislation for conservative politicians. It sounds as cynical as you think. It takes lobbying to a completely different level. And they've been around for more than 40 years. It's a stunning example of why capitalism will always trump human rights.
9. We Now Have Another White Person With Cookout Privileges
Kevin Gannon is the latest White person to be invited to Black barbecues everywhere. Namely because he's woke as hell, acknowledges the existence of institutional racism, and its role in shaping our society. He joins Greg Popovich, Megan Rapinoe, and Ben & Jerry. Gon' head and fix y'all some ribs and potato salad. (It's cool. Aunt Rhonda made it.)
Morgan McDaniel is a freelance writer originally from Detroit, but lives in Atlanta because apparently that's where Black people are supposed to live out their dreams. When he's not devouring delicious food like it's in short supply or suffering through a Lions game, you can catch him in his feelings at flyerrrr.com.