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Tuesday, February 28, 2017


One of the nominees for Best Documentary Feature was 13th, Ava DuVernay's scathing examination of mass incarceration in America. Perhaps I can sum up the film with one statistic: Black men are 5.5 percent of the U.S. population, but 40 percent of the prison population.

The title refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which states that slavery is outlawed, except for criminals convicted of a crime. After that was passed, Southern whites simply arrested black men for the flimsiest of offenses: loitering, vagrancy, what have you. They were then put on work farms, and voila! Instant slaves.

Fortunately that system died out, but was replaced by Jim Crow laws and Blacks being treated as second-class citizens. That stopped with the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, but since then there has been, according to the film, a systematic attempt to classify black men as violent criminals, which goes all the way back to the early days of slavery.

There are several speakers, many of the professors of African-American studies, who know their shit. There is a close examination of Birth of a Nation, the film hailed as a masterpiece by cineastes but an awful display of racism, which was responsible for the renaissance of the Ku Klux Klan. An actor, in black face, attacks a white women, who prefers to leap to her death. We can see echoes of this in the series of police shootings, when white apologists for police brutality use code words like "thug."

The prison population was steady for several decades, until Richard Nixon took office and declared a "war on crime." Again, this was code for keeping Blacks in their place, to reassure white fears. Famously, Nixon used this as the "Southern Strategy" to convince white Southerners to vote Republican.

Ronald Reagan's "Just Say No" nonsense drove the prison population up even higher. Penalties for possession of crack cocaine were more severe than powder cocaine, as Blacks tended to use crack and white people powder. Even Newt Gingrich, in the film, agrees that sentencing laws were biased towards black, and he says that no white person can understand what a Black person goes through.

The film also touched on private prisons, and laws passed to make sure people are in prisons. I consider myself aware of most things, but I did not know about ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a mixture of businessmen and politicians who lobby for laws that supposedly limit government, but instead grease the palms of member corporations. Private prisons don't make money without prisoners, and companies that make money off of prisons, like Aramark, a food service corporation, or Victoria's Secret, which uses free prison labor to make their garments, aren't likely to want to see prison reform.

Not only Republicans take heat--Bill Clinton's 1994 crime bill is especially lambasted, with its mandatory sentencing and three-strikes and you're out provision. All it did, most of the experts say, is put more black men in prison and separate fathers from children. While white collar criminals were getting sentenced to country club prisons, or just probation, black men with an ounce of marijuana were getting life sentences.

13th is a polemic, but it's a damn good one. It's hard to watch it and not want to immediately go to a Black Lives Matter protest. But then again, I'm the choir being preached to.


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