Yes, Ava DuVernay’s Netflix Originals film, 13th, which is about both the new freedoms and continued enslavement occasioned by the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, is a history lesson – chiefly given by a collection of speakers and professors whose knowledge about and study of American racism, terrorism, and imprisonment of black bodies is vocation, avocation, and/or autobiography.
The pace is compelling, as staggering numbers and statistics on uniquely American mass incarceration strike their way across the screen, decade by decade, administration by administration. We spend time with our landmarks in the timeline from just after the Civil War to now.
With people, like Emmett Till, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Trayvon Martin, and Kalief Browder.
With groups, like the Ku Klux Klan, reinvigorated by the wildly racist propaganda rolled out minute-to-minute in the country’s first long-running cinematic success, 1915’s “Birth of a Nation,” directed by D.W. Griffith; ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), a seemingly unethical joining of national corporations and state legislators, in the business of writing laws to be passed by state legislation that shores up and guarantees corporate profits; and Black Lives Matter, a brilliantly decentralized movement made up of a coalition of groups that tirelessly challenges the persistent centuries-long narrative of black = criminal = expendable.
And with events, like the marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.; the 2016 president-elect calling for the death penalty for the ultimately proven innocent and wrongly jailed Central Park Five; and the 2016 Democratic Party presidential candidate, then First Lady Hillary Clinton, speaking on the need for passing the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill to fight the so-called “super-predators” in society—a legislation from which a direct line can be drawn to African-American men now accounting for 40 percent of the over 2 million imprisoned, which has decimated the black community in America, a point Michelle Alexander explained in her 2010 book, in a 2016 Nation article, and here in the film.
Along with quotes from political operatives John Ehrlichman and Lee Atwater, it becomes clear, for anyone who hasn’t figured it out yet, that the American descendants of enslaved Africans were never meant to surpass their ancestors’ non-citizen status.
It is President-Elect Trump, however, who appears more intent on seeing this through, to knocking back the social progress of the last half century—if not more. And so we must be ever vigilant to abuses both big and small, as the 21st Century continues…
[Originally published 11/28/2016]