‘13th’ Introduces America to the Dark History of Our Criminal Justice System

The new Netflix documentary makes the case that to save the future, we need to stop defending the past.
‘13th’ Introduces America to the Dark History of Our Criminal Justice System
Image: CREDIT: Netflix

“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:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black... but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities... We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

Lee Atwater, advisor to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, admits that clever political vocabulary about “forced-busing,” “state’s rights,” and “cutting taxes” was used as an endeavor to control and imprison black people.

DuVernay goes further: Rather than pinning all blame on politicians, she finds corporations pulling strings to expand prisons into productive plantations, where they profit from forced labor. And in Donald Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again,” she finds him trying to turn back the clock to a time when whites could slander and lynch blacks with impunity.

Growing up, I learned that racial violence was illegal in America. I learned that “fighting crime” was about creating a space for civility and equality. I learned that we were better than this. These frank confessions reveal the deception.

I’d love to see every pastor, teacher, parent, and student listen to DuVernay’s presentation—not because it will decide an election, but because it might help us become transformed by the renewing of our minds. So long as we leave justice in the hands of corporations and the politicians that serve them, we are not living in the America that our Pledge of Allegiance promises. 13th challenges us to make America great—in a way that it has never been. To save the future, she says, it’s time to stop defending the past.

[13th includes disturbing imagery, racial slurs, and archival footage of violence against blacks.]

Questions to Discuss and Consider:

  1. DuVernay’s film is 1 hour and 48 minutes long and bursting with information. What strategies does she use to hold her audience’s attention and make complicated issues accessible?
  2. Do you feel persuaded by DuVernay’s film? If so, what artistic and rhetorical choices did she make that helped persuade you? If not, what is it about her presentation that makes you distrustful?
  3. What do you make of the film’s climactic claim that it’s time for America to “come to Jesus”? What does that mean in this context?
  4. Consider Jesus’s parable that we often call “The Good Samaritan.” Consider how it might relate to DuVernay’s revelations in 13th. If Christ says that “loving our neighbor” is about reaching out to those who have been attacked and abandoned, how might we apply that lesson to the complicated crises of racism and the expanding prison system in America?
  5. 13th asks viewers to reconsider what politicians are saying and doing when they get “tough on crime” and carry out a “war on drugs.” Will this film influence what you hear when those words are used in campaign promises?
  6. Do you think that DuVernay’s film is fair in its treatment of both political parties?
  7. According to this film, what does the phrase “Black Lives Matter” really mean?
  8. In Hebrews 13:3, we read, “Remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” In view of DuVernay’s presentation, what might you do—even this week—to help change the course of this history?
  1. The film suggests that we reconsider the definition of “prisoner,” revealing plans to address prison overcrowding by the development of programs that keep “free” Americans under constant surveillance. What great works of art have been about futures governed by surveillance? What warning have you perceived in those visions?
  2. In Matthew 25, we hear Jesus say, “I was in prison and you came to visit me … Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” If you knew Jesus was in prison, and that you could go visit him, would you?
December
Subscribe to CT and get one year free.
Christianity Today
‘13th’ Introduces America to the Dark History of ...