Regardless of where you are in your political education, Ava DuVernay’s documentary The 13th was pretty well done.
Weaving the staggering numbers of rising incarceration rates with the insights of prominent activists, journalists, and academics coupled with a soundtrack that highlights the connectedness of mass incarceration to Black realities, it is a signature piece of art imitating life. The 13th brought many conversations around systematic racism that usually happen in select circles to a potentially larger audience, but I’m not sure if anyone besides the usual “woke” circle sat in on this one, and if they did – what now?
No lie, DuVernay’s documentary left me feeling informed and also helpless. While watching, I was taken back to the origins of criminalizing Black men, connecting how slavery and Jim Crow are the foundations of today’s prison industrial complex. I appreciated how the film provided a cohesive answer and rebuttal to the claims that Black men, and other men of color, are not targets of the system and that there is no system at all. We have the receipts, we’ve had the receipts for a while but now they’re organized and laid out pretty clearly.
And then there was the film’s coverage of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. If anything in this documentary were to outrage the masses (and not just Black people), it would be the part about the seemingly illegal corporate and governmental partnerships within this organization.
This partnership, that I was unaware of until The 13th, sounds like a boy’s club – a boy’s club where the people with the money (corporations such as Walmart, Altria, Pharma, and Koch Industries) draft legislation and those with the titles (lawmakers) pass said legislation. As a member of the 99%, I’m more than positive that the corporate and political interests of these folks don’t align with my own or the interests of my community.
Remember the Stand Your Ground law that allowed Trayvon Martin’s killer to go free? Or any of the policies that enhanced mass incarceration (3 Strikes, mandatory minimum sentencing)? Well, those were proposed and pushed by ALEC, helping the private prison industry to grow to a point of becoming a multi-million dollar business. As if us “conspiracy theorists” needed more ammo.
The documentary really illuminated how the prison industrial complex has become so large and so monetized that it would take nothing less than a revolution to destroy it. It also reinforced that the narrative around mass incarceration is heavily centered around men, and Black men in particular.
Throughout the film’s 100 minutes, the story of only one woman was told: Sharanda Jones who is a first-time nonviolent offender serving life without parole in a federal prison. Black women represent 30% of all women who are incarcerated under state or federal jurisdiction, and Hispanic women 16%, as reported by The Sentencing Project. These are not small numbers, and I was disappointed at what felt like a missed learning opportunity for myself and other viewers.
The history of mass incarceration alone should be enough to propel the Movement for Black Lives, but for those of us familiar with the struggle and social movements against oppressive systems, it simply is not.
“We can’t ignore the reality of force here… The policies that Bill Clinton put forward… those were a use of political force,” executive director of the Center for Media Justice Malkia Cyril stated in The 13th. Cyril brought forth one of the more important facts in finding a solution: political force.
The System, Institutional Racism, Systemic Racism, The Man… Whatever you want to call it, it was brought in by force. Forcing Black people into slavery, forcing Black people to adhere to Jim Crow laws, stripping our community of its civil rights leaders, forcing us to navigate a reality designed to keep us oppressed.
While there weren’t any clear solutions presented in The 13th, it became clear to me that the only way to end this cycle will be by force. So, I guess that’s what’s next.
Homework: My recommendations for influencing change around systemic racism, do your Googles on the relevancy of the 13th Amendment and see the Movement for Black Lives Policy Platform.