December 31, 2016

13th (2016)

Ava DuVernay

Documentary filmmakers don't get the exposure they deserve. Probably because the majority of the general population internally cringes at the thought of having to learn something from a movie. (I'm not exempting myself from this category.)

But there are different kinds of documentaries. Some focus on a particular person's life. Others chronicle particular points in time. 13th is unique in that it spans both a huge swath of time and individual experiences while tying it all back to its main theme: the mass incarceration of African-Americans in the US. 

It's shocking. Even as someone who used to teach history, it's still shocking to watch all of it, laid out from the end of the Civil War to today. You can know every single incident covered in the film and still be shocked--it never goes away.

But this film wasn't put together with the intention of shocking the viewers. Sure, it shows photos of lynchings and videos of police shootings which are always difficult to watch, but really, this aims to educate people; educate anyone not intimately familiar with what it means to be black in America on the sobering fact that black men have a 1 in 3 chance of being incarcerated at some point in their life. 1 in 3. I'm going to repeat that again. 1 in 3.

There have been other avenues that have exposed the inner workings of the prison system and how dysfunctional it is. Lisa Ling, one of my favorite journalists, recently devoted an entire episode of This is Life to it. 13th, on the other hand, delves into the history of incarceration and the systemic biases built into the system and perpetuated throughout generations. Because as one interviewee in the film says, you can't understand why we have 2+ million people incarcerated and militarized police forces that kill nearly 1,000 people a year without learning the nuanced history of race relations and politics in America.

Lest anyone believe this is a "leftist piece of propaganda" (or whatever insult the internet trolls are using these days), it's worth mentioning DuVernay does give a voice to the dissenters--those who deny that mandatory minimums were racially motivated or that private prisons lobby for the incarceration of citizens for profit. It's not a large voice, but they are shown in the film. The film attacks politicians from both sides of the aisle and even black people themselves, for perpetuating this deep-seated belief that African-Americans are criminals. It leaves no angle untouched.

This is a learning movie. But a deeply important one and I hope the prospect of being educated on an uncomfortable and depressing subject doesn't deter people from hearing this message.

Final word: If I were still teaching Social Studies, this would absolutely be shown to every one of my students.

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