A scathing tour of the prison industrial complex in Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary ‘13th’

For 2.3 million incarcerated Americans, does slavery endure?

Ava DuVernay at the New York Film Festival premiere of 13TH on September 30, 2016. CREDIT: Marion Curtis/Netflix
Ava DuVernay at the New York Film Festival premiere of 13TH on September 30, 2016. CREDIT: Marion Curtis/Netflix

There is an end to the slavery exhibit at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Start underground, by the iron ballast and wooden ship pulley salvaged from the wreckage of a Portuguese slave ship. Keep going, past Nat Turner’s Bible and the Hagerstown Auction Block. Ahead to a shawl worn by Harriet Tubman and shackles worn by who knows how many. Eventually the exhibit bleeds into the next, upward and onward, to ground level, to an invitation to the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama.

In Ava DuVernay’s documentary, 13th, there is no end to the slavery exhibit.

DuVernay’s feature premieres on Netflix on Friday. It posits, calmly but with great fury, that the United States never really abolished slavery at all. A clause within the Thirteenth Amendment, surrounded on all sides by the language of liberty, contains chains: “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.”

That 14-word loophole, DuVernay argues, means that for the 2.3 million people currently incarcerated in the United States — making America, by far, the biggest jailer on Earth— slavery endures.

The prison industrial complex in its modern form is no fluke of fate but a carefully-constructed means of systematically oppressing the same people this country has always systematically oppressed. That’s DuVernay’s thesis, and she hews to the standard documentary format to make her case: Moving chronologically from slavery to the present day, weaving charts and informative graphics throughout, and consulting a fleet of talking heads.

Those interviews include a surprisingly candid Newt Gingrich, who cops readily to the fact that “we absolutely should have treated crack and cocaine as exactly the same thing” and that “the objective reality is virtually no one who is white understands the challenge of being black in America.” His is not the only face and voice you’ll recognize; clips of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump get their share of screen time, the former warning of the perils of “superpredators” who have “no empathy,” the latter taking out a full-page ad to push for the death penalty in the Central Park jogger case. The day 13th premiered, Trump made headlines for his continued insistence that the Central Park Five — young black men all exonerated by DNA evidence in 2002 after spending several years in prison — “admitted they were guilty.”

DuVernay’s most widely-seen work to date is Selma, which probably found an even bigger audience after being all but ignored by the Academy Awards. 13th is at core a very different slant of light on the same central truth. It is wonky, painstaking, and academic, like the most gripping, infuriating history class you’ve ever taken. A just-the-facts approach. (DuVernay’s 2012 independent feature, Middle of Nowhere, is the personal to 13th’s political.)

Even for those who head to Netflix having already cosigned the premise might be startled by the brazenness with which politicians and their ilk targeted black Americans. It was only months ago that John Ehrlichman, President Richard Nixon’s domestic policy chief, acknowledged that the Nixon administration “had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people.” The full quote, which appears in 13th, is stunning a revelation — not that things were this way but that a former Nixon aide would just spell it out — in the documentary as it was in Harpers this April:

“You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

13th places Lee Atwater’s 1981 interview, in which he articulates the willful abstraction of racism, shortly after Ehrlichman’s line. It’s a concise, cutting explanation of how some of the most oft-used dog whistles entered the mainstream:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Early in the film, DuVernay delves into the impact of America’s first blockbuster, The Birth of a Nation, a flick that featured cross-burning before the Ku Klux Klan introduced that hate crime into reality. But other than mentioning that black men are over-represented as criminals on TV, there’s little attention paid to prison in pop culture, even as the timeline moves toward the present. It’s a notable absence considering, for large swaths of the country, an understanding of prison and how it operates is derived largely from those fictional interpretations. Rap music plays between segments, lyrics displayed on the screen, but there’s no real discussion of how those songs came to be or the significance they had on fans and skeptics alike; it’s scene-setting and theme-underlining, not a subject of investigation.

Maybe that’s because the videos DuVernay relies on instead, from about 2010 onward, consist of footage, not fiction. Security tapes of Kalif Browder on Rikers Island. Clips of violent outbursts at Trump rallies as the man the GOP actually, literally, seriously decided should be their nominee for president encourages his white fanbase to “knock the crap out of them.” The final, breathless moments of Eric Garner’s life. Oscar Grant on the ground at Fruitvale Station. Tamir Rice and Samuel DuBose and Freddie Gray and Philando Castile and Eric Harris and Jason Harrison. (These videos are all shown, as small text on the bottom of the screen explains, “with permission of the families,” a compassionate, and not legally necessary, gesture on DuVernay’s part.)

13th is about the mechanics and economics of prison, so vast and inter-connected it boggles even the attentive mind (kind of puts the “complex” in “prison industrial complex”). It examines the indignity and absurdity of many common practices: bail, three strikes laws, truth in sentencing. The thought of undoing what we’ve collectively done seems daunting, to say the least, as it would require battling a cocktail of formidable foes: persistent and pervasive racism; genuine but often misguided fears of felons; your run-of-the-mill government gridlock; a legislative labyrinth, sums of money so deep you can practically picture Scrooge scuba diving into them; general inertia.

But 13th is also a narrative about narrative. It’s about how politicians can, in fraught cultural moments, find themselves out of the race for the White House before it even begins if they cannot appease a fired-up public demanding their president be “tough on crime.” It’s about how we landed on the language we use, how a non-existent problem can be cloaked in the language of horror and sinister things can lurk beneath the surface of innocuous-sounding phrases. About how the words we use and the way we use them have power beyond our capacity to anticipate or imagine. Fourteen words in particular.