Black Lives Don’t Matter. Revelatory and Necessary, 13TH is a Wake-Up Call

In a year that has seen the rise of a xenophobic demagogue, and an escalation in the number of police shootings of unarmed black men, Ava DuVernay’s 13TH is a film that has arrived right on time. DuVernay, who made her name with the critically-acclaimed Selma, has produced a documentary not just revelatory but necessary. It has every right to be a film angrier than it is, but instead we have been provided with a feature with an intellectual rigour that will draw you in and leave you feeling like you’re seeing the world with new eyes.

13TH is an investigation deep into the psyche of the United States of America: it stretches from the plantations of the Confederacy right through to the streets of modern day Ferguson. The focus of DuVernay’s interrogation is the titular Thirteenth Amendment, that which abolished slavery in 1865, and how a loophole in its wording has allowed “involuntary servitude” to remain as a punishment for crime.

What 13TH really seeks to demonstrate, however, is how this has blighted the lives of African-Americans of generations. How a nation built upon a foundation of black slave labour has never escaped its past, and why generations of black men have seen the full weight of American law enforcement rallied against them. How, it asks, has a population that accounts for just 12% of the US population come to account for 40% of its prison population?

 it’s hard not to be astonished by the scale of the injustice

Many will be willing to accept DuVernay’s assertions without too much of a fight. Institutional racism is something we have sadly come to expect despite any progress we may have seen over the last century. Although, even those less willing to take such claims at face value will find it difficult to resist the argument put forward. With the help of an impressive range of talking heads, ranging from the polar opposites of Angela Davis to Newt Gingrich, and an impressive array of evidence, DuVernay rearranges what is already before us in such a manner that it’s hard not to be astonished by the scale of the injustice.

13TH operates in a fairly conventional manner, which helps provide clarity to a documentary with an incredible density of ideas. The film glides over a century of US history, from the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment through to its analogue the Civil Rights Act, showing us how America’s modern fear of young black men continues to be informed by the divisive rhetoric of post-civil war America. It isn't until the arrival of the “Law and Order” era of Nixon, Reagan, and even the Clintons, that the film slows it pace, reaching the core of its treatise.

The crux of DuVernay’s piece revolves around the politics of “Law and Order”, a shift in American politics towards a hardline on crime. It ushered in an era of mass incarceration, police militarisation, and the war on drugs. Between 1980 and the present day, the prison population of the US has quadrupled to just over two million. DuVernay’s claim is bold, that an establishment counter-revolution sought to restore what many in America saw as the natural order of things, and at the heart of this was a concerted attack on the left, and more importantly African-American communities, who had ushered in a decade of change in the United States. 

It is well documented how the war on drugs has unfairly targeted and ravaged minority communities across the Atlantic, but DuVernay challenges the notion that this is just an unfortunate side-effect of an honourable crusade, showing us instead it is a concerted effort of racial control. Evidence from presidential aides such as Lee Atwater and John Ehrlichman asserts openly that not only were the public mislead over the war on drugs but that under Nixon at least, it was policy to destroy the left and the black community.

It’s likely you have already seen one of the most striking scenes of 13TH without being aware of it. A video released in the run up to the documentary’s release juxtaposed a speech of Trump’s lamenting the loss of “the good ol’ days” with footage of protesters past and present subjected to abuse, violence, and threats of death for protesting against a system and politicians that would see them “put in their place”. It’s a scene that showcases DuVernay’s documentary at its best, exposing the loaded language, and subverting the platitudes of an intolerant political system by letting the evidence speak for itself.

13TH wants to shake us awake, to show us that black boys as young as twelve are not being shot in the street by a few bad apples in police uniforms, that Trump is not an anomaly, they are products of a culture that has taught them black lives don’t matter.

 Benjamin Cook

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