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Ava DuVernay’s ‘13th’ proves black people are not crazy

An urgent call for justice and reform, the doc highlights a history of national gaslighting

Earlier this week, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie wrote a follow-up to the vice presidential debates. He called Republican candidate Mike Pence’s performance, in which Pence calmly and repeatedly denied the existence of statements that Donald Trump has made publicly and on television, a “national gaslighting.”

I thought of Bouie’s piece after watching director Ava DuVernay’s new documentary, 13th, which is a look at how slavery never really went away in America, thanks to a loophole in the 13th amendment of the U.S. Constitution that allows for enslavement “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” 13th is a magnificent examination of the links between Reconstruction-era convict leasing and the modern era of mass incarceration, but it also functions as an illustration of the ways black Americans have been subject to gaslighting on a national scale, and the way that gaslighting has been used to justify the practices that led to mass incarceration.

DuVernay starts with the enormous influence of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a work of revisionist history in its own right, which reifies a myth of black pathological criminality and beastliness. In 13th, DuVernay argues that this fear of rapacious black men, beginning with Reconstruction, snowballs into a massively profitable prison industrial complex, with the prison population growing from 357,292 in 1970 to its current level of 2.2 million.

Both DuVernay’s 2012 film Middle of Nowhere and the OWN drama Queen Sugar center around the toll exacted by imprisonment.

Through interviews with professors such as Jelani Cobb, Henry Louis Gates, Angela Davis, and Khalil G. Muhammad, activists and advocates such as Michelle Alexander, Van Jones, Malkia Cyril, and Bryan Stevenson, and politicos including Newt Gingrich, Charlie Rangel, and Grover Norquist, DuVernay reveals how this myth of black criminality grows and gets repeatedly adopted, she argues, to discredit the civil rights movement, to win elections (President Richard Nixon), justify the war on drugs (President Ronald Reagan), to win elections (President George H.W. Bush) and to win elections (President Bill Clinton). Meanwhile, the power brokers who benefit from trucking in this myth repeatedly deny (at least publicly) that’s what they’re doing. DuVernay includes damning audio from Reagan campaign manager Lee Atwater explaining the Southern Strategy off-the-record (replace the N-word with “forced busing,” “states’ rights,” and “lower taxes,” says Atwater). There’s more audio still from Nixon adviser John Ehlrichman explaining that Nixon scapegoated the anti-war left and blacks by painting them as weed and heroin addicts, respectively, and then locking them up en masse.

Angela Davis

Angela Davis

There have been a number of films and journalistic works that delve into the topics DuVernay references in 13th. Like Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, 13th discusses how the overwhelming preponderance of images of black men as criminals on local news and shows such as Cops stoked fear in Americans. “So, you have been educated in public, deliberately, over years, over decades, to believe that black men in particular, and black men, in general, are criminals,” Cyril, director of the Center for Media Justice, says in the film. “I wanna be clear, because I’m not just saying that white people believe this, right? Black people also believe this and are terrified of our own selves.”

DuVernay references J. Edgar Hoover’s surveillance of the Black Panther Party and the violent, horrific state-sanctioned execution of Fred Hampton, which Stanley Nelson covered in-depth in The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. She also touches on Trump’s public call to reinstate the death penalty for the Central Park Five, who were falsely convicted of rape in 1989, explored in-depth by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon in The Central Park Five and Dawn Porter’s look at a broken public defender system that often forces the poor and people of color into plea deals. There’s the George H.W. Bush campaign’s use of the Willie Horton ads to defeat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign, which political strategist Susan Estrich recently discussed in the excellent PBS series The Contenders.

Even if you’ve seen, read, and listened to all of these things, it’s not necessarily easy to see how they are related, aside from a simple duh: racism. The efficacy of 13th lies in DuVernay’s ability to marshal these instances under one umbrella, then illustrate how they are part of a continuous effort of deliberate subjugation fueled by white fear, rather than fits and starts of accidental racism.

In one of the most affecting moments of the documentary, DuVernay juxtaposes images of black people experiencing violence at Trump rallies with footage from the civil rights era of a black man in a suit, surrounded by whites who continually push, goad, and belittle him as he’s walking down a sidewalk. As the footage plays, DuVernay superimposes audio from Trump speeches in which he’s encouraging his supporters to punch dissenters and calling for the good ole days. DuVernay eliminates the subtext and any sort of reasonable doubt about the meaning of his words, on which Trump has come to depend. She removes the possibility for gaslighting.

It’s clear, not just from 13th, but from her narrative works, that DuVernay harbors a deep, personal objection to the way the criminal justice system has been exploited to churn through black and brown bodies. Both her 2012 film Middle of Nowhere and the OWN drama Queen Sugar, which she co-produced with Oprah Winfrey, center around the toll exacted by imprisonment.

“I feel like I grew up in an atmosphere where prison was always present, was talked about — ‘Where’s Derek?’

‘Oh, he’s locked up.’

‘Where you going?’

‘Going to see my P.O.’

… It was just part of the fabric of growing up,” DuVernay said at a postscreening press conference at the New York Film Festival, where she became the first black female director to open the event. “And then when I went to UCLA and was an African-American studies major and getting that historical context, that connected my inner-city experience to a lot of what’s in this doc.”

In 13th, DuVernay argues that this fear of rapacious black men, beginning with Reconstruction, snowballs into a massively profitable prison industrial complex.

In DuVernay’s adaptation of the 2014 Natalie Baszile novel Queen Sugar, she adds a character, Nova Bordelon, a local newspaper reporter determined to expose a pattern of overcharging young black men in St. Josephine’s Parish, Louisiana, for the express purpose of feeding them to for-profit prisons, regardless of innocence or guilt. She also takes special care to expand and humanize the character of Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), an ex-con, illustrating the small injustices that populate his life despite the fact that he’s supposedly paid his debt to society. Ralph Angel is subject to wage theft, but is powerless to protest because he needs to keep a job per the terms of his parole. He can’t work for himself on the sugar cane farm he inherited because a supervisor has to confirm he’s working. He’s trapped in a cycle of societal peonage.

Malkia Cyril

Malkia Cyril


“Ralph Angel, Kofi, he’s, for me, the heartbeat of the … show in that he is the steady center that everyone thinks is unsteady,” DuVernay told me in an interview earlier this summer. “Really he emerges to be a lot more steady than people give him credit for, just like we discard so many people in our society, in our families, in our community. We discard them. He’s someone that’s been discarded by most. There’s one member of the family that has their eye on him and really keeps a steady hand on him. That’s Violet. To be able to follow a character like that who’s been discarded, who’s on the margins, who’s formerly incarcerated and to allow viewers to actually come to know him in an intimate way, hopefully it changes the way you think about the people we discard.”

In Middle of Nowhere, DuVernay focuses her camera on the way the war on drugs not only punishes men of color who are thrown behind bars and subject to mandatory minimum sentences, but the partners and families they leave behind. It turns out Middle of Nowhere and Queen Sugar were mere introductory forays. In 13th, DuVernay makes an urgent, belly-incinerating call for justice and reform while drawing a line of systematic disenfranchisement and penal subjugation from Reconstruction through the current presidential campaign. In doing so, she also offers a powerful affirmation of lived experience that has continually and deliberately been denied, minimized or ignored. 13th tells us black Americans are not irrational. They are not making up racism or targeted arrests and police violence.

13th tells us black people are not crazy.

Liner Notes

The documentary debuts October 7th on Netflix.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.