The statistics are damning, the dots connect and the admissions — secretly recorded or otherwise admitted, are conclusive.
There’s been a concerted effort to criminalize, incarcerate and stereotype black men as “super predators”, junkies and the like by opportunistic politicians, lobbyists and the corporations that profit from the decades of misery that “The War on Drugs” produced and the new “War on Illegal Immigration” promises.
“Selma” director Ava DuVernay’s documentary “The 13th” is peppered with experts who document the effects and lay out the causes of America’s skyrocketing, world-leading prison incarceration rate.
Talking heads — activists, academics, lawyers and legislators — sum up the sorry history of race relations in America. And they zero in on the year — 1970 — when “Law & Order” President Richard M. Nixon launched the policies that filled prisons, got new prisons built and eventually allowed private companies to run prisons as the number of inmates, nationally, soared from 357,000 in 1970 to some 2.3 million today.
The culpable are held accountable — the nefarious American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) lobbying group whose members include corporations that benefit from the policies that they write and that their bought-and-paid-for legislators then introduce into law. For profit prisons push for laws that allow them to operate, and other laws that will keep those prisons full and profitable. Firearm companies and their mouthpiece groups all the way to retailers that sell guns (Walmart) back, through ALEC, anything that could boost gun sales (Florida’s infamous “Stand Your Ground” law).
DuVernay includes a few dissenting (GOP, white) voices, but the stats shout them down, backed by John Ehrlichman’s admission that Nixon went after drugs to disrupt black lives and disenfranchise black voters, by GOP strategist Lee Atwater admitting on tape that “Law & Order” was just what others call “dog whistle politics,” what polite Conservatives say because they can’t say the N-word in campaign speeches preying on White Fear of The Other.
It’s a solid film, but the mission creep of its many messages, its format — interviews broken up by vintage news footage, old movies (“The Birth of a Nation”) — and a stylistic choice by DuVernay dull its impact.
We’re subjected to a sea of faces and an ocean of voices. And for the first ten minutes, DuVernay doesn’t identify anyone giving her testimony. The titling and credentialing of these interviewees is more thorough afterward, but still spotty. That undercuts the authority of one and all.
Some of the experts are more expert than others — credentialed academics (Henry Louis Gates), politicians (Charles Rangel), published researcher/authors (Michelle Alexander, “The New Jim Crow”) — mixed in with folks you can’t vouch for because DuVernay is hiding their identity from you.
What’s the point of going to the trouble of becoming an expert if the filmmaker is going to treat the weight you bring to the subject so cavalierly? Not naming names here, but some of these folks have more opinions than authority.
That waters down “The 13th” — the title comes from the Constitutional Amendment that abolished slavery — rendering a good film on an important subject a somewhat less compelling argument than it might have been. A simpler narrative with fewer voices, properly identified, would have made a stronger argument.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violent images, profanity, racial slurs
Cast: Angela Davis, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Grover Norquist, Charles Rangel, Cory Booker, Newt Gingrich, many others.
Credits:Directed by Ava DuVernay. A Netflix release.