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If you’re white and become uncomfortable watching Netflix’s new Oscar-nominated documentary, 13th, that’s probably as it should be. “No one who is white understands what it is like being black in America,” explains Newt Gingrich in the film.
Filmmaker Ava DuVernay traces a large story arc: the overcriminalization of black men in media and politics, and therefore, in American life, since Reconstruction.
The film is most effective when exploring the facts across U.S. history and policy: Slavery was an economic system, and when it collapsed, the economy of the South collapsed too. Criminalizing blacks by arresting them for very minor crimes, like loitering, allowed Southerners to continue enslaving them for labor.
Today, we see racial disparities play out in the justice system in areas like mandatory sentencing for drug offenses, where possession of just 1 ounce of crack cocaine (used in the inner cities, mainly by blacks) carries harsher penalties than possession of 100 ounces of powder cocaine (used mainly in the suburbs by whites).
13th is still breathtakingly biased, and somewhat scattered. It often relies on emotion—news clips, rap music, or the occasional movie clip—where it could have used thoughtfully chosen statistics for a stronger argument.
For example, it fixates on the influence of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council—one of hundreds of D.C. nonprofits—on private prison legislation, as if ALEC invented the idea of giving draft bills to legislators or is solely responsible for poor prison conditions affecting all races.
Fortunately, the documentary also features Craig DeRoche, a vice president at Prison Fellowship. DeRoche says the film portrayed his contribution accurately but that there are a number of structural and socio-economic barriers to healing America’s damaged criminal justice system.
“This movie does shine a light on the debate,” said DeRoche. “To the extent that it does that, it’s important that America says let’s go ahead and talk about this, and not sweep it under the rug.”