What America’s culture of fear says about our own

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Ava Duvernay’s documentary, “13th,” not only debunks “the mythology of black criminality,” but also questions the myth that America is the greatest country in the world. The film asks: how could “the land of the free” lock up so many innocents? Screencap from NETFLIX US & CANADA/YOUTUBE

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Thirteen is an unlucky number — but it is not as dreadful to the superstitious and triskaidekaphobic as it is to the American black man.

Ava DuVernay joins the likes of Michelle Obama, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Beyoncé in the fray of empowered black women who tell it like it is, and tell it sober but tell it passionately. Her medium of choice: film. After taking on Martin Luther King in the Academy Award-nominated “Selma,” she now tackles the spate of black arrests and killings.

In the compelling Netflix documentary “13th,” DuVernay masterfully cuts the narrative of the incarcerated African-American. With eloquent interviewees, masterful graphics, and well-researched footage, the film shows the arc of racism in the United States of America as the result of the repetitive exploitation of a loophole in the 13th Amendment.

The provision prohibits slavery “except as a punishment for crime.” It is in this dark reality of police and prison abuse that “13th” makes the case that “criminal” is the new name for slave.

13th 4.1.jpg The documentary's references will be familiar to Filipino viewers: local jails bursting with more people than they are built for, a justice system that favors the rich, and hundreds of detainees who haven’t had so much as a trial. Screencap from NETFLIX US & CANADA/YOUTUBE  

DuVernay’s editorial mastery, with props to her long time collaborator and editor Spencer Averick, manifests in the absolute absence of a narrator. And yet, a narrative is clearly at work. The film has plenty of interviewees — a fair mix of academics, activists, and politicians — who propel the story from one chapter to the next. Although some may find the number of voices overwhelming, their soundbites are arranged so the story flows seamlessly from the freedom of slaves to the upcoming presidential elections.

For the Filipino viewer in today’s political climate, “13th” is not just about blacks and whites, but about human beings and their chilling tendency not to recognize history as it replays before them.

 

Their quotes and recollections are set to compelling head shots, off the chart for your typical documentary. Bending expectations of framing, DuVernay does not comply with the regular rule of thirds; she utilizes side shots, center shots, and mobile shots of her interviewees led in by the echo of hip hop and audio from speeches. Under a lesser director, and with less articulate case studies, the documentary would have fallen into the trap of talking heads.

Dynamic typography set to political rap gives viewers a rest from these takes and archival footage. These dividers take the opportunity to usher in shocking statistics. It is over this blackboard of a screen that the numbers are introduced: One in three black men are likely to be accused of crime in their lifetime, and they comprise 40.2 percent of the prison population.

13th 2.1.jpg "13th" contains a wrenching parallelism between a video of a black girl being shoved out of a Donald Trump rally and old footage of a black man being pushed and chased down the sidewalk. Screencap from NETFLIX US & CANADA/YOUTUBE  

A rising count of prisoners welcomes viewers to the discussion of each new era of discrimination, and what the respective presidential administrations have done to exacerbate — if not alter the form of — mass incarceration.

To usher in the recent 2000s, rap music is replaced by a melancholic opera-like rendition to the folk song by Lead Belly, “There’s a Man Going Round Taking Names.” The music fades into a photo of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager who was shot and killed under a claim of self-defense. It is an appropriate, heartfelt, and sensitive introduction to one of the many recent cases of violence against black Americans.

And that’s only halfway through the film. As if to show that contemporary abuse is just the half of it, “13th” picks up from there in bursts of action and retort.

There is a neatly edited back-and-forth between a critic and a representative of a council that sought to privatize aspects of the prison system. Audio and video from two separate interviews were cut and spliced as if the case studies were having a conversation — or a debate. It’s a touch that gives some balance to the film, although its editorial intent is clear.

13th 5.1.jpg The 13th Amendment prohibits slavery “except as a punishment for crime.” It is in this dark reality of police and prison abuse that “13th” makes the case that “criminal” is the new name for slave. Screencap from NETFLIX US & CANADA/YOUTUBE  

Most wrenching is the parallelism between a video of a black girl being shoved out of a Donald Trump rally and old footage of a black man being pushed and chased down the sidewalk — a clear mark that in spite of how modern we would like to believe we are, history repeats itself.

A speech from Trump that goes, “You know what they used to do to guys like that? They’d be knocked out on a stretcher, folks,” is set to matching footage of a black person actually being rolled out in a stretcher, presumably after a protest.

It’s not that the United States should clean up its own backyard before criticizing the Philippines’ spate of extrajudicial killings. Rather, the documentary is a terrifying reminder of what a culture of fear and discrimination is capable of doing, even to the first world.

The documentary is sharp and angry where it needs to be. It sheds tears when empathy is called for. It is quiet where the subject stuns, to give time for the facts to settle. It comes, even without the voice of a narrator, from a deeply personal place.

All these and more will sting the regular television goer. But what does the film offer to Filipinos?

Haunting references to the United States’ failed war on crime and drugs, prompted by Richard Nixon and carried all the way to Bill Clinton’s term, will be startling and familiar for local viewers. Although the war on drugs here occurs in a different context, many aspects are eerily similar: a popular president who openly declared the war, local jails bursting with more people than they are built for, a justice system that favors the rich, and hundreds of detainees who haven’t had so much as a trial.

It talks about the price of a public opinion of safety, and the sacrifice that a minority makes for it. How fascinating it is that for all the talk of independence from America, we still seem to be, after all this time, their little brown brothers.

 

And while “13th” debunks “the mythology of black criminality,” it also debunks the myth that America is the greatest country in the world. After all, how could “the land of the free,” as quoted in the documentary, lock up so many innocents? The documentary is at the same time unabashedly American, and yet ashamed to be.

But this is not meant competitively — it’s not that the United States should clean up its own backyard before criticizing the Philippines’ spate of extrajudicial killings. Rather, the documentary is a terrifying reminder of what a culture of fear and discrimination is capable of doing, even to the first world.

For the Filipino viewer in today’s political climate, “13th” is not just about blacks and whites, but about human beings and their chilling tendency not to recognize history as it replays before them.

***

Stream Ava DuVernay's "13th" on Netflix.