Reviewed by Morris Reeves
Like most stories I already know I did not expect to learn anything new in watching the documentary “13”. I expected to see a familiar story told in a new way much like movies and documentaries on the bible. The title “13” refers to the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution. We know how the story will end but we enjoy it being told in a creative and interesting way. Boy was I wrong, the documentary “13” by Ava DuVernay showing on Netflix cable gives us new and insightful information which is critical to understanding American racial history. This story tells how the 13th Amendment contained a crime loophole used for the reestablishment of slavery in America.
Ava DuVernay by who she is means that her stories will be told in a different way. She is one of those rare birds of paradise in Hollywood namely a black female director. Not only are there to few women but even less women of color with Hollywood influence. Ava has broken through and spread her wings with the hugely successful movie Selma. The movie Selman relates the story of the famous freedom march in Alabama by Dr. King during the Civil Rights era. Selma and her other successes created a spring board for this amazing story of race relations in America.
For the first time we see the story of black injustice told not just in an emotional way but also surrounded by its economic drivers and consequences. A direct connection is made by “13” between the economic engine of slavery , Jim Crow laws and mass Incarceration. In this story we see how the economic evils of uncaring greed continue to affect us today.
In “13” we get details and names of people who have brought us to this moment in American history. What is really fascinating is how Ava DuVernay smoothly takes us on a ride from slavery to today. We see how the history of current mass incarceration has a strong economic basis in America. Prison slave labor rebuilt the southern economy after the Civil War. Black people fled north by the millions as refugees to escape the rebirth of southern slavery in its new form. Today 25% of prisoners in the entire world are in America while America is 5% of the world population.
Ava uses a host of articulate different people to relate the story. What I like most about “13” is that the story is told as an American story by both black and white Americans. The story wraps with a history on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) the shadowy conservative organization made up primarily of Republican politicians and corporate interest. There is even a representative from ALEC in “13” who justifies ALEC as a natural civic organization. We see how the power and influence of ALEC rivals our elective government as a source of policy and law.
Because there is always a criticism my criticism of “13” centers on the presentation of some policies and laws as being malevolently motivated when that was not always the case. Ava DuVernay cites the presidency of Bill Clinton as particularly devastating to people of color by creating the “Prison Industrial Complex”. While I cannot disagree with the results of the policies and laws instituted by the Clinton administration I don’t believe the motivation was evil. Good intentions often have unforeseen negative consequences. History is full of examples of this happening. I only wish “13” had gone more in that direction as oppose to pushing the notion that these were wrongheaded policies and laws and that the promoters knew this at the time but had nefarious reasons. As someone old enough to remember the crack epidemic and crime surge of the 1990s I remember how conservative and liberal people in both the black and white communities were pressuring federal and local governments for something to be done.
The policies and laws such as “3-Strikes and out”, “Truth in Sentencing” and harsh crack cocaine punishment resulted from pressure by all segments of American society. Yes in hind sight we now know the policies and laws had severely negative repercussions on people of color no matter how well intentioned at the time. Believing in the Christian tenets of justice and mercy as a black Catholic I once supported and know there were some other good people supporting these policies and laws and that should not be forgotten.
The fact that a black woman tells this story speaks to the unique greatness of America. Only by seeing the beauty of America with warts and all can we avoid the traps of hatred. Racism and hatred are cancers in American society and they will morph and transform by perverting and using any tools available. This is why the fight for social justice requires constant vigilance. We cannot be afraid of making mistakes but we must have the strength and courage to correct those mistakes. That is the essence of “13” in my opinion.