13th still shot am i next

Ava DuVernay’s latest documentary exposes the connection between slavery & modern day mass incarceration.


It wasn’t until I was halfway through Ava DuVernay’s 13th documentary until I came to a subtle and weird realization about her work. Everything she’s laid her hands on, from 2012’s Middle of Nowhere to Selma to even Queen Sugar has dealt in someway with the prison industrial complex and incarceration.

She’s told these stories from varied perspectives. Her directorial debut focused on the shattered lives of the women who are strung by a train of words, “When is he getting out? Have you see him? Is he going to be released anytime soon?” There it was the pained visage of Emayatzy Corinealdi having to put her life and dreams on hold to maintain the sanity and well-being of her husband played by Omari Hardwick. Queen Sugar, her OWN series focusing on the lives of a family in Louisiana copes with the mental makeup and pride of a former convict. Even though he is a free man now, Kofi Siriboe’s Ralph Angel is still viewed as a slave to a system. He cannot work on his father’s farm and endure the reality of being the patriarch of his family without having to check in at his factory job. He needs the hours yet can’t chase his actual ambition because it wouldn’t count as work according to his overseer, also known as his parole officer.

Friday, DuVernay’s 13th premiered on Netflix after weeks of acclaim at various film festivals. The structure of DuVeray’s storytelling reminds us that this was always her strong suit. She carefully refuses to give tags and labels to the characters within her narrative, waiting until they’ve won you over to reveal their actual identities. There are noted academics, activists, politicians and more who are woven into 13th, all of whom are equally important.

There’s former House Speaker Newt Gingrich telling you how systematic racism works from a political perspective. There’s Angela Davis, a living survivor of government persecution as a member of Oakland’s Black Panther Party. CNN commentator Van Jones, University of Connecticut professor Jelani Cobb and more. Even minor activists who’ve played a role in educating the world about the reduced rights of citizens who’ve committed crimes, they’re all here to remind you of a very important truth that has long been ignored, not just in the public eye but our education system as well.

The 13th Amendment has a loophole that still endures slavery.

In all the years under the watchful eye of the Texas Board of Education and multiple school districts, we were never asked to actually read the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution. Only to know that it was the amendment that freed the slaves. In reality, it’s a law that didn’t fully outlaw slavery, just under public eye.

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

DuVernay’s film dives far deeper than the emotional fight wrought upon Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma. From generation to generation, she charts out the connected pieces of chattel slavery to the modern slave system that is prison. Of how caste systems from prison lines to Jim Crow to mass incarceration were created. How policy was created on the back of fear mongering. How America romanticized D.W. Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation to the point where it was shown at the White House and hailed as culturally significant.

Yet it was Griffith’s film that wantonly sparked the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. It was the first film among many other media vehicles in the decades that followed that promoted a negative image of Black men as the image of Black men. 13th goes well beyond how media shapes our public perception of the Black body, especially in how it creates a form of self hate amongst black people. The creation of “implicit bias”, if you will. Visualizing the idea of black men as fearful, predatory beasts in cartoonish black face is one thing. Yet it sounds eerily similar to the “super predator” rhetoric of the 1990s, doesn’t it?

“The System is designed to control the Black body.”

For it’s 100-minute run time, 13th continually outlines the men, women and policy makers who essentially kept a piece of Americana (forced labor) afloat under varying names and how it was purposefully strategized to box in African-Americans and Latinos. The Republican Party, the one where Richard Nixon outlined the War on Drugs as a battle against blacks and the anti-war left built up this platform.

Former Reagan aide and consultant Lee Atwater doubled-down on “The Southern Strategy” in a way to not only exploit and cut out the black vote by disenfranchisement but to give a Black face to the platform of being “tough on crime”. The same strategy used by Bill Clinton in his 1992 election and the larger framework of his 1994 crime bill. These are either things you know or things you’re introduced to for the first time. DuVernay wants it to be under all one cover and in one sitting with all the dots and correlations made and understood.

kalief browder 13th

Kalief Browder

Around the time the documentary arrives to the story of Kalief Browder, you’re mad. You’re boiling with rage internally because it’s the same system in New York that railroaded The Central Park Five. The same one Donald Trump called for a public execution of five innocent black men. The same system where public officials such as judges are paid to send people to jail in order to keep an economy going. Browder’s case only amplifies the pain because he was arrested for zero reason and remained on New York’s Rikers Island for three years without trial. When he was released, Browder struggled with his mental health, ultimately taking his own life.

13th in some aspects feels just like Mamie Till, the mother of Emmitt Till wanting us to see the body. DuVernay’s technique, by introducing players such as ALEC who produce legislation for voter ID laws (amongst other nefarious things) is masterful, if not infuriating at times because they’ve been under your nose and you didn’t realize it. The film’s final minutes show not just the militarization of the police in small towns such as Ferguson, Missouri, but also juxtaposes the words of Donald Trump, current Republican presidential nominee with black & white images of black men and women being harassed and assaulted during the Civil Rights movement.

What DuVernary’s film does ultimately is shed light on why black people in America view racism as systemic, a designed concept that only gives centimeters while it takes miles. The light has only gotten bigger and larger as time as progressed and for once it’s showing the world what Black people have been aware of for generations.

The system is designed to control the Black body.

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