The Beast with Many Heads

I spent much of my spring break in a lethargic state absorbing content on Netflix. One day after a few minutes of browsing their catalog, I stumbled upon the documentary 13th by Ava DuVernay. I began watching with the many positive reviews I had heard about the documentary in mind, and I can say sincerely after watching it, I fully understand why this film has achieved critical success.

13th explores American history following the 13th amendment (of course) up until now, discussing what this legislation and succeeding laws have accomplished in regards to mass incarceration, race relations, and broadly, justice. The film shows how after the 13th amendment abolished slavery, laws were made that allowed black Americans to be arrested for minor offenses and introduced into convict labor. There was a need to replace the workforce demands that slavery had left behind in the American economy. Soon to follow were Jim Crow laws that effectively made blacks second-class citizens until the legislation pressed by the Civil Rights movement established legal rights for all. Yet, as pointed out in the documentary, countless barrier persisted. The film mentions how President Nixon’s aide, John Ehrlichman, revealed that the government’s war on drugs’ actual purpose was to use the police to target African-Americans and disrupt their lives. Later, President Reagan created mandatory minimums (minimum sentences for crimes that were often drug offenses) that drove up rates of incarceration, primarily for African-Americans. Even President Clinton joined this harmful war on drugs with his “three-strikes-you’re-out” legislation, which serves mostly life sentences to those who have committed at least 2 felonies in the past. This lead to further incarceration of black men and Clinton is shown years after his presidency apologizing for the harm such laws caused. 13th also notes that when African-Americans attempted to unite against injustices and rally under leaders, those individuals were targeted. The most notable example being Fred Hampton: the Black Panther chairmen who was quickly rising in prominence until a police team raided Hampton’s apartment and shot him dead. The policemen were formally cleared of any crimes.

DuVernay does a stellar job of breaking down the roots of issues in our criminal justice system as our nation has transitioned from president to president. Her method of presenting historical information and then turning to commentators from both the political left and right truly highlights when certain issues appear contestable and complex, and even when they seem objectively wrong from both sides of the political aisle.  For example, I was surprised to see Newt Gingrich agree with Democrats in the film when discussing the flaws of the war on drugs, especially in regards to how crack/cocaine laws unfairly burdened minorities. But what the film mainly left me reflecting on was the 13th amendment’s true role in history. The 13th amendment is largely portrayed as an end to the enslavement of black Americans, but in reality the film clarifies how it was a direct transition to lawfully disenfranchising black citizens. And even when civil rights laws were enacted, America shifted to more subtly criminalizing black Americans through the media and unfair legislation, and then incarcerating them on a mass level. Unfortunately, it seems that the beast of American institutional racism has many heads, and every time you chop one down, there is always another that sprouts up to take the place of the previous issue. As the documentary nears its end, recent videos of black Americans being fatally shot by police are shown and DuVernay leaves me wondering, even if laws are made to address current issues like police brutality, what will the next face of the beast be?

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