After watching the Netflix documentary, “13th,” I summarized my thoughts in a concise review on Letterboxd, saying how evidence of systemic racism’s continued relevance is “horrifying, provoking, and ultimately heartbreaking” and praising Ava DuVernay for her efforts to vitalize anti-racist education.
It’s been three days since I last saw DuVernay’s masterpiece and I have yet to stop thinking about it.
The title of the documentary is a direct reference to the Thirteenth Amendment, known for abolishing slavery and granting freedom to all Americans, with the exception of criminals. Despite its seemingly humanitarian intent, the amendment has ironically contributed to one of the most prominent human rights violations. Those with enough power can use it to their advantage, so long as it complies with the words of the Constitution.
The Thirteenth Amendment’s ratification was soon followed by a surge of Black arrests, most of which were carried out due to minor crimes. The documentary makes a very interesting connection between the institution of slavery, the establishment of Jim Crow laws and the current era of mass incarceration — which has proven to be less of a justice system than a method of targeting Black Americans.
The relationship between each of these systems says a lot about the disguised intentions of corporations and government organizations, outlining the significance of breaking the continued pattern of oppression that unfortunately lies on top of this country’s strong foundation of racism. Pieces such as “13th” are so valued because they voice the importance of movements like Black Lives Matter, which strive against systemic racism. Considering the fact that the systems themselves are failing, it’s ultimately up to the people to set things right.
One of the most effective tools in persuading citizens to fight for Black rights is empathy. No one will ever truly understand the struggles faced by the Black community other than those within it, but remembering the stories of murdered individuals has the effect of garnering an emotion as close to empathy as possible. People including Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Kalief Browder, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sam DuBose, Freddie Gray, Jason Harrison, Laquan McDonald, Eric Harris and Philando Castile were among those mentioned in the documentary, along with clips of their murders.
Van Jones, founder of Dream Corps and one of the activists featured, explains the difference between what has changed and what hasn’t: “The difference now is somebody can hold up one of these [phones], get what’s going on, they can put it on YouTube and the whole world has to deal with it. That’s what’s new. It’s not the protests, it’s not the brutality, it’s the fact that we can force a conversation about it.”
Clearly, systemic racism has been around for a long while. Government campaigns like the war on drugs is one example that is highlighted as the introduction to mass incarceration, where Black Americans became the primary representation of criminals on national television during the 1980s. This is comparable to the depiction showcased in “The Birth of a Nation,” which not only criminalized Blacks, but also romanticized the Ku Klux Klan as a savior group. The film came out 70 years prior to when the war on drugs began and 50 years after the abolition of slavery. For years, systems have overseen certain policies and laws as ways to target Black people right under our noses. Today, it’s different.
The footage of each murder speaks a thousand words. In recent years, there has been a noticeable influx of videos displaying Black oppression; videos that hold a powerful message for the world. Following the death of George Floyd, it makes sense that Black Lives Matter has experienced some sort of resurgence. Others are starting to realize the unjust state of affairs, causing systems to become exposed for advocating racism and people to start rallying against them.
“13th” not only unveils Black criminalization, but also emphasizes that now is a more important time than ever to actively work against the institutions that support it. For me, “Emmett Till” was just a name in a history textbook, whose funeral photo I don’t even remember seeing. In reality, his mother agreed to have an open casket because she wanted the public to see what his murderers had done to him.
Browder is yet another name. The name of a 16-year-old kid who served three years in Rikers Island for allegedly stealing a backpack and ended up committing suicide two years after his release. Browder’s life was quite literally chewed up and spit out by the same systems that claim to achieve justice. His story was just about enough to convince me to get “ACAB” tatted on my forehead.
Stories like Till’s and Browder’s have the impact to persuade anyone of the urgency surrounding Black oppression today. The phrase “educate yourself” has been floating around social media for the past three weeks, with “13th” topping each list of recommended resources. I have nothing more to contribute other than to urge others to watch it. It’ll probably make you cry, which is good. It’ll hopefully make you upset, which is even better. It’ll definitely make you acknowledge that Black lives do matter, which is essential.
Thumbnail photo via Teen Vogue
Esther Ju is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. They can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.