Ava du Vernay. Production: Howard BarishAva DuVernaySpencer Averick

USA, 2016, 100 min.

The Thirteenth Amendment to the American Constitution (1864): ‘abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime.’ This last part is what the Netflix documentary 13TH is about: how black citizens have been criminalised after the abolition of slavery to alternatively provide a workforce. In particular, the Southern states saw their economy collapse following their labourers awarded their freedom. This ‘loophole’ in the amendment, as one of the interviewees deems it, has been exploited ever since, to fill the void.

The film takes us from 1864 to 1915, when Birth of a Nation not only wrote cinema history, but also political history, stimulating a revival of the KKK. The film speaks of Jim Crow and the introduction of racial segregation legislation. It then fast forwards to the 1960s and the Human Rights movements of Dr. King, and on to the 1970s and its mass incarcerations. Only 15 minutes into this 100-minute film, we have seen eight, mostly nameless, interviewees and covered about a century of policies in a whirlwind of talking heads, archive footage and animation.

The film features many experts, scholars and activists, who all share their knowledge – not necessarily their experiences. Filmed in large empty spaces and often placed in a corner of the frame, they recount the history of policies related to crime, incarceration, punishment, criminal acts, drugs, law and order, as well as the American prison industrial complex that has affected blacks and Latinos disproportionately. The multi-camera interviews are interwoven into one narrative that leaves no room for individual accounts. The interviewees are completely employed to construct the argument.

Starting with the US’ abolition of slavery and ending with the Black Lives Matter movement, the film tells a relevant story. It contextualises and explains, not only the BLM movement, but much of the continuous anger and distrust among black communities towards policy makers.

13th by Ava DuVernay

The approch of 13TH seems rather technocratic for a problem that, so it argues, is so deeply ingrained in American society. But, racism is a cultural rather than a technocratic problem. And, although regulations matter hugely to sustain cultural changes, such changes cannot be enforced by altering the law. People do not become less racist because it becomes illegal.

A completely different media text shows a complex and fundamental problem underlying racism. Last Week Tonight (LWT) is a weekly late night HBO comedy show hosted by John Oliver. It addresses the news and each week explores a topic more in depth, relying on research and creativity and trying to make a serious point about it. Some of LWT’s discussion of ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council – a meeting space for legislators and businesses) in November 2014 feature in 13TH. In its October 30th, 2016 episode, LWT addressed the problem of school segregation, also a system of oppression. Despite policy effort to prevent schools from remaining predominantly white or black, a lot of schools still are, with numbers increasing rather than decreasing. That is a problem, because individuals who do not meet others from different backgrounds, are unable to form their own ideas and opinions on people. They rely on what they hear from others and remain stuck in prejudices. Many of those are based on the perpetual sense of threat that has been associated with people of colour. Or, as Harvard professor Khalil G. Muhammad states in 13TH:

«The way that we appeal to voters’ sense of fear and anxiety  in our nation runs through black bodies.»

LWT argues that evidence shows that black (and Latino) children in segregated schools often have less experienced teachers and fewer resources due to a lack of funding. Alternatively, black children in mixed schools do better and are more likely to graduate; and this does not happen at the expense of white children. Unfortunately, succesful attempts of desegregation were annulled when parents who went to court to prevent their children from being sent to mixed schools won their cases.

13th by Ava DuVernay

The story of 13TH is important and must be told. A historical perspective is necessary to understand contemporary phenomena. However, 13TH focuses both on laws and jurisprudence that allowed for racism and control mechanisms to continue, and bellows the story at you with a fast and consistent message that hits you in the face. In particular,  where the term ‘criminal’ is concerned: the image spells out the word in capitals on a black background. In addition, suggestions as to how to move forward is not addressed. But, racism is a complex phenomenon. As Oliver justly states: ‘You do not have to be intentionally racist to do things that have racist effects.’ His plea for desegregation at least points to a potentially successful strategy.

Modern Times Review