‘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 ...

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