”The Visceral and the Historical”
Stephen Charbonneau (Florida Atlantic University)
Much more than a survey of the history of race in America, Ava DuVernay’s film, 13th, is a form of essayistic advocacy and activism. The film’s treatment of the past is energized by a sense of urgency to bring about change in the present. Unlike more traditional and nostalgic uses of archival imagery where our struggles from the past leave the viewer with a smug sense of accomplishment, 13th reminds us that such imagery is doggedly immanent in our contemporary situation. For example, a particular black and white film strip of a Black man being harassed and physically abused by a gang of white men appears multiple times, once in a segment that places it within its original historical context of the 1960s and again in conjunction with violent footage from Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign. Here the footage returns to help us see the past in the present as a white Trump voter sucker-punches an African American protestor.
Testimonies from the likes of Michelle Alexander, Jelani Cobb, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. balance the concreteness of the film’s historical narrative about mass incarceration with an insistence on the legacy of slavery, on the consistent failure of this country to come to grips with what historian Kevin Gannon describes as the “centuries-long historical process” of criminalizing and taking away the rights of African Americans. Towards the end of the film a focus emerges on the politics of the visual and use of shock as a form of reckoning for white audiences. Cory Greene, one of the featured voices in the film and the founder of How Our Lives Link Together (HOLLA!), sets the tone through his remarks on both the necessity of deploying imagery of violence committed against Black people as well as the perils of oversaturating screens with “Black bodies as dead bodies.” This cautionary note from Greene is balanced by testimony by others, including Cobb who reminds the viewer that “Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement used television in this way: Look, this is what segregation looks like; these are dogs attacking children; these are people being fire hosed.” He punctuates these comments with a note on the inescapable and deeply historical struggle to find the “medium of technology that will confirm your experience such that your basic humanity is recognized.” Van Jones similarly insists that new technology can now “force a conversation” as imagery of police abuse towards African Americans grows increasingly ubiquitous. For me, the film ultimately responds to Greene’s warning through its own masterful balancing of the visceral with the intellectual and the historical. The film leaves us shocked but nevertheless oriented towards the deep roots of our present crises.
Of course, there is much more to say about this film. But if I accept the spirit of the film’s message, I also feel compelled to reflect on my own institution’s recent history of flirtation with the prison industrial complex. In 2013, the Board of Trustees at Florida Atlantic University approved a proposal to rename our football stadium after the private prison company, Geo Group, and was subsequently labelled “Owlcatraz” (a fusion of our mascot, the owl, and Alcatraz). Our students and faculty responded with a successful campaign to stop the agreement and to forestall this particular alliance between our university and a private prison company with a dodgy human rights record. The urgency of DuVernay’s message, then, resonates deeply with the recent history of my institution and the lives of our students. The film leaves us with a simple message and one reiterated by DuVernay in a recent reflection on the 2016 election: resist.
Alex Johnston (University of California, Santa Cruz)
13th, the new documentary by Selma director Ava DuVernay, constitutes a filmic articulation of scholar Fredric Jameson’s famous maxim, “History is what hurts.” Taking its name from the 13th Amendment of the Constitution, which outlawed slavery on the basis of race while affirming its legality “as a punishment for crime,” the film is a sprawling primer on the wretched history of the criminal justice system since the end of the Civil War, when it emerged as a prominent apparatus for the subjugation and disenfranchisement of black people in the United States. As opposed to the melancholic arthritic ache favored by a filmmaker like Ken Burns, however, DuVernay presents this history as an open wound, one requiring our urgent attention.
The scope and range of her subject requires broad strokes. Thoughtfully deployed archival materials, a judicious use of animated texts and charts, and an impressive array of talking heads (including Angela Davis, Van Jones, Michelle Alexander, and Cory Booker, but also, surprisingly, Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist) move us briskly through time: from the post-Reconstruction period of white terrorism against blacks, the convict lease system, and the era of Jim Crow, through the brief moment of respite, hope, and de jure relief during the Civil Rights Movement, followed by the ruthless and calculated negating of those gains via Richard Nixon’s “war on crime,” Ronald Reagan’s “war on drugs,” and Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill, and concluding in our present moment of filmed “death by police,” Black Lives Matter, and mass incarceration. It is a lot to fit into a 100-minute film, but the transhistorical scope means DuVernay is able to move beyond Faulknerian historical platitudes, and connect past events and present realities with impressive complexity and specificity.
This is on poignant display in a sequence late in the film, which lays audio of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump instigating violence against African American protestors, over a montage of news footage of this violence being enacted at his rallies, and archival footage of similar acts of white on black violence during the Civil Rights Movement. What could be an overly simplistic, if bluntly effective conflation of past and present – such as when Trump expresses the desire to punch a protester in the face, over footage of a Civil Rights protestor being similarly attacked – is elevated by DuVernay’s repeated inclusion of Trump’s use of the phrase, “In the good old days…”. Instead of merely illustrating the disturbing resonances between past and present, DuVernay is making legible the ideologically-driven rhetorical processes and the insidious willful historical blindness through which such resonances may yet be even more fully and horrifyingly realized.
13th’s epic scale and strong ideological commitments are central to much of its power, but also the source of some of its deficiencies. Concerns have been raised about the degree to which the film ignores changing trends and dynamics in the criminal justice system which do not easily conform to a narrative of prisons as a tool for the control of black bodies. A self-reflexive meditation on the role of imagistic representations of race, racism, and racial violence to both resist and perpetuate systems of oppression is short-circuited by DuVernay’s refusal to seriously consider the ethical questions raised by recent viral videos of black death. Also worth noting is the director’s unwillingness to explicitly engage with (or mention) the concept of prison abolition, despite the film’s overarching emphasis on the impossibility of reform, and the presence of Davis, a leading abolitionist thinker.
Yet in the age of now-President Trump, whose election was partially the product of yet another structural remnant of the United States’ origins as a slavocracy, these criticisms feel somehow less urgent. For at its core, 13th is both a case study and a call to arms. To quote Jameson again, it offers us a painful reminder that history’s “alienating necessities will not forget us, however much we might prefer to ignore them.”