US Catholic Faith in Real Life

The documentary that looks at the criminalization of black men

“13th” reminds us that America’s original sin of racism is still waiting to be confessed and cleansed.

By Danny Duncan Collum | Print this pagePrint |
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13th, the documentary by Selma director Ava DuVernay about mass incarceration, was screened for the first time just days before the 2016 presidential election. In the film the first thing we hear is the voice of President Barack Obama saying that, while the United States is 5 percent of the world’s population, it locks up 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. 

Midway through 2017 it sounds like a voice from a forgotten past. But it’s true. Just a few months ago, we had an African American president who used his executive power of clemency to correct racial disparities in drug crime sentencing and set his attorney generals on a crusade against unaccountable urban police departments.

Now we have a president who has expressed contempt for Georgia Rep. John Lewis’ heroic role in the civil rights movement and, in comments about Black History Month, referenced 19th-century abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass as if he were still alive. In his first weeks in office, the only acknowledgment President Trump made of any issue affecting criminal justice and African Americans was a presidential executive order “on crime reduction and public safety” on February 9 that established a task force to stem a nonexistent crime wave and to counter an equally nonexistent rise in violence against law enforcement officers. Meanwhile, encouraged by the new president’s rhetoric of law and order, his legislative allies are pursuing “blue lives matter” laws that give armed law officers the same hate crime protections accorded to historically oppressed and persecuted groups such as blacks, gays, Muslims, or Jews. 

All of which only means that we need DuVernay’s 13th now more than ever. 

The film takes its title from the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That’s the one Abraham Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones were ramming through Congress in Spielberg’s Lincoln several years back in 2012. The amendment abolished “involuntary servitude” in all the United States except when that servitude was enacted as punishment for a crime. The thesis of DuVernay’s film holds that the criminal loophole in the emancipation amendment led directly to the wholesale criminalization of black men as de facto threats to peace and public order. 

This narrative thread in the movie runs from the use of convict labor to replace slavery, to the national toleration of lynching, to the War on Drugs. Once her film reaches the Nixon era, DuVernay begins a running tally of the number of Americans in prison. It starts at 357,292 in 1970. The number climbs steadily during the presidential terms of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr., but it really takes off during the Clinton years when the crack epidemic fueled a rage for mandatory minimum sentences, three-strikes-and-you’re-out laws, and the practical abolition of parole. By the time the number peaked in 2014, 2,306,200 Americans were behind bars. Forty percent of those prisoners were African American men, who make up only 6 percent of the general population, many of whom were locked up in for-profit, private prisons that have a financial interest in mass incarceration. 

The Clinton years were also the era of the so-called superpredators—youths depicted as being raised without morals—such as the five young men in New York who were imprisoned for the rape of a Central Park jogger. That is until DNA evidence proved their innocence more than a decade later. Incidentally, during DuVernay’s depiction of this episode, a younger Donald Trump appears, taking out a full-page newspaper ad to urge New Yorkers to bring back the death penalty for the defendants in the case. 

But the most impressive players in 13th are the mostly African American intellectuals and activists who nail down the film’s central point that the systematic dehumanization of African people is, and always has been, utterly central to American economics, politics, and culture. Bryan Stevenson, founder of Alabama’s Equal Justice Initiative and author of the stunning memoir Just Mercy (Spiegel & Grau) carries this message powerfully throughout the film, drawing on his decades of experience representing poor­—usually black—victims of the criminal justice system in the prisons and courthouses of the Deep South. 

Attorney and author Michelle Alexander does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to tracing the straight line from the 13th Amendment’s loophole to the post-Reconstruction disenfranchisement of the freed slaves and the institution of Jim Crow. In her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press), Alexander gives a nuanced take on this material, noting that disenfranchisement and segregation came about largely to drive a wedge between the black and poor white Southerners who, in the 1880s, were joining together in an increasingly powerful, biracial populist movement. The film, unfortunately, slides over this crucial point, an omission that is especially unfortunate in the age of Trump’s so-called populism.  

When Pope Francis visited the United States in 2015, he seemed to know about our mass incarceration problem, and one of his public appearances was with the inmates of a medium security prison in Philadelphia. He told them, “All of us have something we need to be cleansed of, or purified from. May the knowledge of that fact inspire us to live in solidarity, to support one another and seek the best for others.” 

As 13th reminds us, America’s original sin of racism is still waiting to be confessed and cleansed.

This article also appears in the May 2017 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 82, No. 5, pages 38–39).
Image: Courtesy of Netflix 
Wednesday, April 26, 2017