I just watched Ava DuVernay’s documentary, the 13th on Netflix (coincidentally, it is the 13th of October). After a few students in my Racial Inequality class commented that it was a great documentary (note: when twenty-somethings say a documentary is good…you better watch…it must be remarkable). The documentary is about the hows and whys of the disproportionate presence of black people in American prisons.
It is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen.
It starts with an historical overview, dating back from Emancipation, describing how black peoples have been stereotyped, surveilled and sentenced. The obligatory Birth of a Nation scenes are shown and discussed, the Civil Rights Movement is given its due. But the documentary really shines when it moves to the political and corporate roots of the post 60’s “Tough on Crime” stance in American society. No stone is left unturned and no prominent voice is left out. If one wanted to know who the main voices in the prison reform movement are, one couldn’t do any better than jotting down the people interviewed in this documentary.
As an academic who studies social media, I listened intently to the last 20 minutes or so, where the documentary talks about the use of media to, as one of the interviewees said, “show the humanity of black peoples”. The line was drawn from writings and autobiographies to photographs of lynchings to the strategic use of television by the Civil Rights Movement (e.g. dogs sicced on kids, fire hoses trained on weaponless marchers) to finally the use of mobile phones documenting instances of police brutality.
There are quite a few negatives to ripping snapshots from everyday life out of context and posting them online for everyone to see. But for so many decades the weight of the state on black people has been unseen and overlooked. But new technologies level the playing field somewhat between individuals and the state. People have seen police brutality – even though it is decontextualized – close up and personal, and this has made it impossible to be overlooked. Black peoples (as well as women, sexual minorities, immigrants, and other groups who are not a part of the privileged set) have a means of speaking truth to power.
In any case, The 13th is in my view one of the best documentaries ever produced. It is a must see.