D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film “Birth of a Nation” is eternally infamous not so much for its considerable technical achievements of the time but for its subject matter, appallingly portraying America’s reconstruction in the wake of the Civil War as a horrific era in which terrifying black men preyed on innocent white people, leaving only the noble heroes of the Ku Klux Klan to save the day. Ava DuVernay covers this bout of white supremacist mythmaking in her documentary “13th”, partially to demonstrate how the “Birth of a Nation’s” roaring success not only established a certain viewpoint of reconstruction but let certain white Americans see the narrative they preferred, but also to reject its argument and build a counter-narrative of American society. DuVernay does by doing precisely what President Woodrow Wilson claimed “Birth of a Nation” did – she writes history with lightning.
Indeed, “13th” brazenly pile-drives through 150 years of considerable history, so frenzied that it effectively underscores the frenzied anger so many decades of institutional injustice have rightfully whipped up, marshaling all manner of historical footage, often contrasting it with footage of today, like when DuVernay cuts back and forth between a Jim Crow-era protestor being pushed and shoved by white people with a modern protestor at a Trump rally being pushed and shoved by white people. Occasionally DuVernay drops her images completely, leaving the screen black and then laying the words of protest songs, whether old spirituals or modern rap songs, over the black screen. DuVernay’s bag of auteur tricks is so deep that DuVernay probably lays it on a little too thick, resembling Oliver Stone’s “JFK”, just with less concern for conspiracies and more concern for impartiality, highlighted by Newt Gingrich’s refreshingly candid appearance.
Gingrich is but one of DuVernay’s talking head legion, comprised of historians, politicians and activists, to relay how the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, in fact created a loophole within its abolishment, writing that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist…except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted. With a society that was in so many ways built on the backs of slaves, those slaves were still needed to rebuild after the civil war and that loophole provided the means to lock up black people and, in essence, re-draft them into slavery. And while the Civil Rights moment may have won them a temporary reprieve, politicians have nonetheless been exploiting that loophole ever since, from Richard Nixon employing the coded term “Law and Order” to the Reagan Era’s just as coded War on Drugs to the sweeping crime bill of the Bill Clinton era. The names change, the policies change, but the business stays the same.
The business, in this case, is quite literal, spurred along by the infamous ALEC, the American Legislative Executive Council that lobbies for and helps enact right wing causes like mandatory minimum sentences and the three strikes law, instruments to reap profits off prison privatization. It means that prisoners have become the engine for an economic force and that engine must be sustained, whatever it takes, and once you have created such a viable stream of money, as journalist Bob Sloan explains, it becomes nearly impossible to do away with because there is simply too much money at stake for those in the positions of power to take preventative action.
Michael Hough, a Maryland State Senator and member of ALEC, appears on screen in “13th” to testify in defense his Executive Council. DuVernay might not be on his side but she is also not deliberately casting him in a bad light; she just puts him on camera in the blandest setting imaginable and lets him dig his own grave. “Right now,” he says with an omnipresent smile, “our position is we don’t want more people in prison”, a position he defends with nothing but vacuous corporate platitudes, calling his party the “party of innovation” and citing “wholesale reform” which ties to letting more people out on parole...but with GPS monitors funneling more money to private corporations which means turning a profit always take precedence over actual rehabilitation.
As Hough speaks, DuVernay cuts away from him and to people like Glenn E. Martin, President of Just Leadership USA, who speaks to the durability of oppression, how it re-invents itself and how entities such as ALEC continue to oppress right under our noses, and then deliberately cuts back to Hough, still droning on in monotone, still smiling. In these moments you realize they are not just doing it under our noses; they are doing it right to our faces.