“Not whips and chains — all subliminal; instead of n––r, they use the word criminal.”
Common from “Letter to the Free”
In the end, she gives us grace. And by then, you really need it.
The end credits roll over pictures celebrating everyday joys of African-American life. A beaming girl rides a pony. Boys flex. Fathers cuddle daughters.
The anger and pain that have sat heavily in your chest for more than 90 minutes begin to lift ever so slightly at these reminders of black life still stubbornly managing to be lived even in the midst of state-sponsored oppression. Otherwise called, without irony, the U.S. justice system.
In “13th,” the troubling new documentary from director Ava DuVernay now streaming on Netflix, the American prison industrial complex is laid bare as a machine designed for the suppression of an inconvenient populace. Meaning black men — the nation’s boogeymen for two centuries and counting. Like “The New Jim Crow,” the game-changing 2012 book by Michelle Alexander, “13th” doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know if you’ve been paying attention. Its triumph is to fit the pieces together, to make visible the pattern that was there all along.
Namely, that much of what we call justice is a 150-year effort to win back what was lost at Appomattox. Yet somehow, we never quite see.
Six point five percent of the country accounts for over 40 percent of its prisoners. The liberal looks at this and says, isn’t it a shame what poverty does to them? The conservative looks at it and says, isn’t it a shame they embrace thug culture? The overt racist looks at it and says, isn’t it a shame they’re naturally criminal?
Hardly anyone looks at it and says, the system is working as designed. Hardly anyone says, this is not about criminality, but control.
DuVernay says it forcefully, explicitly and convincingly. In “13th” — the title comes from the constitutional amendment that ended slavery — the director of “Selma” draws a line from Appomattox through convict leasing, through lynch law, through the Southern strategy, through mass incarceration, through the commodification of black bodies and black misery by private prison entrepreneurs. All the way up to now.
Cue Donald Trump. On screen, a black man is being spat upon at one of his rallies. A black woman is being shoved. A black man is being sucker punched. And Trump is loving it.
“Knock the c–p out of ‘em, would you? Get ‘em out of here. In the good old days, this doesn’t happen, because they used to treat them very, very rough. And when they protested once, they would not do it again so easily. Like to punch him in the face, I’ll tell you.”
As he speaks, the images change. It’s 1965 and Rev. C.T. Vivian is being knocked down the courthouse steps. It’s 1960 and protesters are being hauled off lunch counter stools. It’s 1957 and reporter L. Alex Wilson is being kicked and pummeled down the streets by the good people of Little Rock.
All as Trump is reminiscing about the good old days. And a chill skitters up your spine.
We like to think we have distance from the past, don’t we? We profess to be mystified by it. How could people have done such things? If I had lived at that time, a man will assure you, I’d have never tolerated it. But, as attorney and author Bryan Stevenson reminds DuVernay’s camera, “the truth is, we are living at this time — and we are tolerating it.”
It is an unanswerable truth, a truth that leaves conscience maimed. The credits roll just then.
And yes, you are thankful for that small bit of grace.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via email at email@example.com.