Ava Duvernay‘s 13th (Netflix, 10.7), which I saw last night, is a brilliant whack across the chops — a ranty, studious, well-ordered indictment of the evils of racist incarceration and profiteering by white culture, particularly by the governmental, corporate and law-enforcement branches. It lays it all down, makes the case, tough as nails, bang.
But at the end of it I felt a bit distanced. I’m not arguing with any of the doc’s observations for a second, not a one. But I am a white motherfucker and therefore one of the bad guys…right? Or my parents or grandparents were. (And my dad was a hard-core liberal.) Yes, they were racists and in their own ways reflected, fortified or contributed to cultural attitudes that caused a lot of pain among people of color. There’s no skirting or shaking this off.
So how, apart from acknowledging the quality of 13th, am I supposed to respond to it? I nodded glumly and soberly as I watched it. I nodded glumly and soberly as I discussed it with a couple of friends in the aftermath. Is there anything about American white culture that gets a pass? Probably, but 13th is only concerned with the exactitude and comprehensiveness of the indictment. Which, again, is of a high order.
Is there another doc about racism and the general divide that I didn’t feel distanced from? Yeah — Ezra Edelman‘s O.J.: Made in America. This sprawling ESPN doc covers a lot of the same territory in a roundabout way. I had lived through it, after all, and felt that Edelman offered real insight into the various whys and wherefores, and particularly why the infamous “downtown” jury found O.J. innocent in less than two hours.
There’s no way not to be impressed by the marshalling of history and facts in 13th, plus all the well-considered opinions and perceptions (I loved listening to Angela Davis in particular), but the film never seems to allow that there might be at least some white people apart from highly educated lefty academics who aren’t part of the general oppressive conspiracy.
The film doesn’t exactly state that there are no actual criminals of color, or that all inmates are to varying degrees political prisoners. But it comes close to implying this. The term “super-predators” may well have sprung from unfeeling racist mindsets in the ’90s, but have there ever been such things as gangsta gangbangers? Is there any truth to reports about criminals dealing drugs and shooting their rivals and spraying automatic gunfire in Chicago neighborhoods?
The movie almost implies that if it hadn’t been for institutional racism over the last 150-plus years, there would be no bad guys of color doing time anywhere.
The film explains that many of today’s corporate-run prisons are basically for-profit enterprises, and therefore many if not most (all?) of black and Hispanic prisoners have been sentenced on minor trumped-up charges — that the main point of incarceration isn’t rehab or even punishment but exploiting prison labor for profit.
None of which I’m challenging for even a half-second. The expanding prison population since the early Reagan years plus the corporatizing of prisons makes that obvious.
But are there any bad guys anywhere who deserve, for the sake of social protection, to be kept behind bars? I’m presuming that a significant portion of inmates (half? a bit more than half?) are bad eggs, but the film doesn’t even hint that this may be the case.
Other than this small side issue 13th is a brilliant piece, and I expect it will not only wind up on the Academy shortlist but will be nominated for Best Feature Doc. But I’m more of an O.J.: Made in America kind of guy.
A friend responds: “I don’t think the movie is anti-white. I never felt that at all. It’s about systems — political, cultural, and sometimes, yes, systems that emerge from one-to-one human racism. But it’s not saying anything like, ‘All white people are racists.’ It’s making an argument about how our systems, driven by racism, and now driven by corporate agendas that have profited off of racism, have operated and still operate.” My response: White systems…c’mon, plain as day.