Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 07, 2016 9:27 am 
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US prisons as an extension of slavery

Ava DuVernay's ringing and dramatic The 13th is the first documentary to grace a first night of the New York Film Festival; it's in theaters and also on Netflix, who produced it. Last year saw the release of the director's Selma, a historical film seeking to dramatize key events in Martin Luther King's struggle for equal voting rights, focused on the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. The effort was received with acclaim, though it unnecessarily slurs President Lyndon Johnson, a great champion of civil rights, and some of its characterizations were lackluster. The 13th is arguably a more forceful piece of work. Though much of the information it presents is not new, its scope is sweeping, its connecting of the dots so clear viewers may be shocked and enlightened.

Perhaps surprisingly for the NYFF's spotlight choice - but they've not always been strongest in doc choices - The 13th iis really not original investigative work as was Laura Poitras' Edward Snowden film that debuted at the festival last year, Citizenfour. It's simply a collection of talking heads (though well-chosen and sometimes nicely contrasting ones), statistics, and archival footage, with animated captioning and music to liven things up. Inclusion of DuVernay's film in the top NYFF spot seems mainly aimed at making a strong political statement in an election year (it contains clips stunningly exposing Donald Trump's retrograde racism), when the events addressed by the Black Lives Matter movement are in the forefront of minds.

In some ways though handsomely crafted, The 13th can also annoy with its jumpy multiple-angle shots of the talking heads and its ADHD-level cross-cutting between speakers and clips. It's an affectation of the film that speakers are rarely seen looking right into the camera, and onscreen IDs of speakers are withheld till they've appeared repeatedly. Some speakers are presented in grand settings, some not. It all takes some getting used to. But when you do, it contains much important information. Even if you may know a lot of it already, it's interrelated in a thought-provoking way.

Begin with some statistics: the US has 5% of the world population but houses 25% of the world's prisoners; 40% of them are black. One in three blacks will serve prison time; one in 17 white men will. And how did this come about? The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution - to which the title alludes - has a clause in it that clearly excepts prison. "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." If you're in prison, it's okay for you to be treated as a slave. Rather astonishing, but that's what it seems to imply. Given this proviso, the logical purpose of DuVernay's exposition is to show that the lives of African Americans since the abolition of slavery, through various means, but increasingly over the last three decades through imprisonment, have involved slavery by another name.

It's all economics, the film points out. Slaves played a key role in the southern economy, and their removal left it in disarray. The result was to re-enslave them by other means. They were jailed for long times for trivial charges and the prisoners were farmed out as labor. The 2.2+ million incarcerated in the US today are a massive slave labor force, whose maintenance itself is a highly profitable industry.

D.W. Griffith's huge hit The Birth of a Nation fed a picture of blacks as dangerous criminals and marauders and rapists. In the wake of this mood, the KKK thrived. Jim Crow rules extended exclusion and humiliation. In this atmosphere the incarceration of blacks was looked on as inevitable. Revolt was difficult. Civil rights leaders during the Sixties were targeted by FBI chief J.Edgar Hoover, and were jailed, executed in their beds, and driven from the country.

Fast forward to Richard Nixon, then Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. "Law and Order" and the "War on Drugs" are explained as code words or pretexts for incarcerating blacks. The film points out the familiar fact that crack cocaine, which predominated in the ghetto, led to extreme punishments while involvement in the white suburban powdered version of cocaine was treated much more lightly in US law. Here the film grows more relevant and contemporary, referring to Hilary Clinton's support of her husband's Draconian "three strikes" law and "mandatory sentencing" as a major factor behind the way since Reagan the US prison population has increased by 50% or even doubled every five years.

Returning to the economic factor which motivated slavery, the film describes the key role of the wide-ranging conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (or ALEC), which has had a many-layered role in increasing the incarceration rate and profiting by it, including the privatization of prisons. Now that public awareness of the prison issue is heating up, the new move is toward home incarceration - spreading the prisons among us - using ankle bracelets and GPS to confine people outside the formal prison system. The film touches on how privatized "detainment centers" for undocumented immigrants are really just prisons too.

It's plain the film isn't enthusiastic about Hilary Clinton, given her links with her husband's Draconian policies vis-a-vis imprisonment and welfare and her use of the term "superpradator," but the vicious moments - clips of many of them - from Donald Trump at rallies that have a distinct racist flavor makes the message clear: the "least worst" by far is Hilary.

Given its thorough, forceful nature, The 13th certainly is a film worth seeing, and probably of special importance to young people. It's just a shame that it's more in the order of a summary of what's known than new investigation. The film doesn't steer us otherwise toward a way out, or provide a very positive message, except that "Black Lives Matter" (even without the great black political leaders of the past, including Angela Davis, whom we've directly seen and heard from) is a strong and viable movement for reform.

The 13th, 100 mins., debuted 30 Sept. 2016 at the New York Film Festival; also LFF. Limited release UK and UK and internet (Netflix) starting 7 Oct. 2016. It has received raves (Metacritic rating 91% from 22 reviews).


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