“… blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
– Lee Atwater
While 13th—Ava DuVernay‘s documentary about the criminal justice system and mass incarceration being used to extend slavery via a loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment—is far from perfect, it is crucial to commence a conversation and relevant in a way John Oliver simply cannot equal thanks to the color of his skin. If you’ve watch “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” during its run on HBO you’ve learned a cursory amount of what DuVernay’s extensive list of talking head educators, politicians, and activists have to say on subjects ranging between mandatory minimums, ALEC, the War on Drugs, and more. He does an amazing job balancing insight and entertainment, but 13th contextualizes it all together into one factually damning narrative America can no longer blindly ignore.
DuVernay isn’t one to shy away from the entertainment aspect either, however, as she utilizes many aesthetic choices that bridge grunge-infused animation and rap music together for emotional resonance and visually enhanced sound-byte snippets for an ADHD-addled populace of youths who need to understand what’s happening. Donald Trump’s penchant for inciting hatred and violence in his supporters with screams of “the good old days” is juxtaposed against clips from D.W. Griffith‘s The Birth of a Nation and archival news footage of segregationists beating and belittling black citizens like today’s whites—still inexplicably afraid of color—wish to copy while being called “heroic” for their trouble. Does it blatantly corroborate the film’s agenda? Yes. Does it manipulate facts by making a connection that doesn’t exist? No.
And this is what so many detractors don’t understand considering facts and statistics are usually manipulated to serve their purposes. It’s not about who yells the loudest or longest anymore—despite every election since 1982 (and many before) proving it might be for a population rife with indifference and laziness when they aren’t the ones being oppressed. There’s historical precedence and an irrefutable direct correlation to certain actions. You can say that the lawmakers who willingly set the black community of America up to fail didn’t mean to do so intentionally, but you cannot deny that it isn’t exactly what they did. Whether or not their actions were veiled by labels like “provider of law and order” or “savior from economic depression,” the inherent racism at work remains.
It’s spelled out very succinctly by the subjects onscreen from the ways in which the Thirteenth Amendment was written to allow the south to arrest blacks for vagrancy and therefore put them to work to a mass exodus towards cities like Oakland and Detroit for escape to Hollywood and the media painting a generalized picture that vilifies a race into believing each pejorative word about itself. The evolution of the political machine of both parties using economic issues to bolster their constituency and rise to power is laid out plainly alongside the collateral damage left behind. Some ask forgiveness for their parts (Bill Clinton and Charles Rangel) while others (ALEC mouthpiece Michael Hough) skirt the issue by refusing to contextualize “changes” as answers to proven injustices and not random epiphanies.
We hear Lee Atwater admit knowledge that Reagan’s laws would affect the black community more than white. We read John Ehrlichman‘s statement that the War on Drugs purposefully incarcerated hippies and blacks so the Republican Party could reap the benefits. It’s no coincidence DuVernay goes back to the rising number of American prisoners as her story progresses from the 1970s until today. The steady rise from 300,000 to 2,000,000 in four decades isn’t either. With every new law removing subjectivity from a judge’s sentencing ability, more children were left in broken homes and more adults put in a system that hopes they return again and again (to stay in business). The longer you’re in (or on parole) also means the longer your vote to change things won’t count.
Lines are drawn to connect the money trail from private correctional facilities, detention centers, and bail providers to the politicians presenting the laws that they claim help America. Lines are drawn to connect laws that have allowed a militarized police force on domestic soil to run wild to the number of black and Latino men and women locked in jail. Rehabilitation is thrown out the window so that punishment can replace it even if your only offense was being too poor and scared to go to trial and prove your innocence. Yes everything explained and highlighted fits DuVernay’s thesis, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It means that if you look past your own arrogance and misinformation, the truth may turn out to be the opposite of what you thought.
For some seeing a white man like John Oliver state these same facts is necessary to open their eyes a little because it’s coming from someone who looks like them. Others need a Van Jones, Angela Davis, Cory Booker, or Michelle Alexander to speak about it from experience. Because as even Newt Gingrich willingly admits, most people in America cannot begin to understand what it’s like to grow up black. Most are blinded to the fact that life outside their window has hardly changed from the prejudice and racism running rampant when Martin Luther King Jr. still took breath. The ever-increasing list of victims that DuVernay puts onscreen exposes as much (her expansive wall naming only those who were killed by law enforcement while unarmed).
There’s a reason the families of many who’ve perished allowed footage of beatings and murders to be shown. Sometimes people refuse to see what’s in front of their faces until it’s the only thing in view. We must be reminded of what’s happening because its occurrence at all means it could very well happen to you next. If you condone hate for blacks you’re allowing hate for Latinos, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, the handicapped, and more. You laugh that you have reasons. You laugh it won’t get out of hand enough to spark another Holocaust. But that’s only because you believe you’re safe. What happens when you’re the one in seventeen white men thrown in jail? What happens when your child is lost within this broken system you created?
 Angela Davis
 Jelani Cobb
 Van Jones
courtesy of Netflix