“Defend the past. Save the future.”
Those words are lighting up TV screens this week, promoting the new NBC time-travel adventure series Timeless. But really, it’s ridiculous. No matter how many people want to go back and “kill Hitler,” the past cannot be changed. Right? Right?
I don’t know. Last night, director Ava DuVernay took me back to familiar figures from my childhood. She didn’t “defend the past.” She revealed politicians I remember as heroes to be complicit in things I find difficult to accept. And if you take that journey with me, we might yet become a church that helps “save the future” by refusing to defend our past.
DuVernay, who directed Selma—a gripping historical drama that has the gospel blazing through its veins—has just delivered a brilliant lesson in time travel, and its streaming now on Netflix. It’s called 13th.
With startling interviews, ugly statistics, kinetically charged animation, and shocking man-on-the-street footage of American history, 13th reintroduces Americans to their very own criminal justice system. I say “reintroduces” because DuVernay films through lenses that reveal a cancer running unchecked.
Full disclosure: Despite Jesus’s call for his followers to visit prisoners, I have never stepped through those gates. Remember those religious hypocrites who pass by the man beaten, robbed, and left by the side of the road? DuVernay’s perspective convicts me. I see now how blind I became, proudly pledging my allegiance to the ideal of “liberty and justice for all” while revering politicians who manipulated laws to perpetuate injustice.
Informed by the testimonies of historical and political experts—including Cory Booker, Jelani Cobb, Angela Davis, Newt Gingrich, and Deborah Small—13th explores how flexible language in our Constitution has allowed politicians and corporations to keep slavery alive and inconspicuous. Since 1864, the 13th amendment has secured for all Americans “freedom” from “slavery” and “indentured servitude” with one exception (or, better, one loophole): “Except as punishment for a crime.” DuVernay tracks how this has been used as an excuse to arrest and imprison black Americans for the slightest of “crimes.”
“The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners,” says President Obama as the film begins. “Think about that.” DuVernay accepts the challenge. Now I’m thinking how suspicious it seems that one out of four prisoners in the world are here; how the fact that 300,000 prisoners in 1972 increased to become 2.3 million today, many of whom have done nothing severe enough to justify sentencing them to a lifetime of torture and abuse.
And the blame is bipartisan: DuVernay gives us “eyes to see” how the rhetoric of both Republicans and Democrats unfairly target African Americans.
This is how she time travels to expose the lie of my memories: I remember cheering for presidents who waged a “war on crime” and a “war on drugs,” who declared “Three strikes and you’re out!” But now I’ve heard John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s advisor, admit this: