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13th: A Brief Review

December 30, 2016

Yesterday I watched 13th—a new Netflix documentary on racism and mass incarceration (trailer here). What follows is a quick and dirty review.

I think 13th is worth your time, for those interested in intellectual history. On its historical content, I don’t think the film does well in its first 15-20 minutes, where it pushes some large chronological jumps on the viewer that detract from the narrative, intellectually. They needed a Reconstruction expert talking head, or three, to really help deliver a coherent narrative on the change from “Emancipation” to Jim Crow, with some brief discussion of how Jim Crow functioned differently in various regions until the 1960s.

But when the documentary gets to Sixties, it really, really delivers. In fact, if it had just started in that decade, the historical narrative would be more coherent. The appearances by various activists, historians, politicians, and intellectuals are highly effective. I especially appreciated discussions involving Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander, Van Jones, Kevin Gannon, Henry Louis Gates, and those who could address the Black Power movement. The constant reminders about ever increasing numbers of those incarcerated are harrowing.

The documentary is moving and powerful when it reaches its climax, tracing the killings and murder of African Americans by police officers and “concerned” citizens. #BlackLivesMatter clearly evolves as a natural outcome of those killings and the creation of our carceral state.

To conclude, watch it. It’s a hard but necessary screening for whites. Most of the facts were not new to me, but seeing everything in one documentary is moving and even startling, whatever its relatively minor intellectual weaknesses in narration in its opening. – TL

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