Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Movie Review: 13th (2016)



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In 1864-1865, U.S. president Abraham Lincoln put forward the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, one which would abolish slavery of black people in the United States. The Amendment reads as follows: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation. With this, Lincoln became known as the Great Emancipator and the issue of black slavery was over… or so we’d very much like to think. Something that has rung true about politics since its very inception is that laws are like any other weapon: If they can’t be broken, they can just as easily be turned on the people who make them. Unfortunately, the 13th Amendment is much the same and, before too long, it would end up being used to bring back the very institution it was created to stop. Time to get good and fucking depressed; this is 13TH.


Now, the titular amendment is actually fairly easy to understand as that one clause is brought to the forefront. As such, the film sensibly doesn’t take time out to vilify Lincoln for including it, nor dissecting the amendment itself; after all, I don’t think anyone at the time of its passing could have predicted how much those few words would damage the United States. Instead, it takes a timeline-restricted look at the systemic racism that went into exploiting it, basically going from the end of the Civil War till present day, just to show that they weren’t exactly biding their time in doing so. It even starts out with a quick examination of the cinematic classic Birth Of A Nation and, for once in a long time involving its discussion, acknowledge its place in artistic history while keeping that as a sidebar to the real impact it had on shaping how the American collective consciousness would view black people from then on.

The film also details how this persistent racial policy wound up affecting politics as a whole, showing that politicians of the time had to adapt to make themselves appear more favourably towards those who abide by that policy. In contrast to certain right-wing political exposes, namely those made by Dinesh D’Souza, the stances taken by the supposed Democratic candidates end up reflecting far more of the Republicans than what is recognized as Democratic, or even the early United States' definition of Democratic. I’d insert a joke here about how the current political landscape shows little change from this, except the film does it well enough on its own. Two people whose actions are shown in relation to the war on black crime are Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, whom apparently had something that they could agree on after all as they both put their support towards this mindset. Hell, Trump penned a full-page newspaper ad advocating for the death penalty for these black offenders. The time for jokes on that has passed since this film’s original release, as it seems that Trump is dangerously close to doing the same thing all over again. Hell, even with how this film highlights the actions of the past, it doesn’t shy away from showing how terrible things still are to this day like the Trayvon Martin shooting. In fact, it does such a good job that it almost becomes the definitive answer to Michael Moore’s Bowling In Columbine, as once this gets into the influence of ALEC and the Stand Your Ground laws, it ends up however inadvertently providing what could be a major factor in the modern American fascination with firearms.

Given that this was made by the same director of last year’s excellent civil rights drama Selma, it makes sense that this would share that film’s great sense of music as rebellion. In-between the segments dedicated to each era from Nixon to Reagan to Clinton and the Bushes, there are snippets of songs with detailed written lyrics on screen to help illustrate just how much the black communities are well aware of their heinous circumstances. Starting out on Nina Simone once again proving her status as the queen of black rage on Work Song, we get into Public Enemy’s Don’t Believe The Hype as well as Killer Mike’s Reagan, a song that actually details a lot of the racial attitudes that this film conveys. That last one is also where I first discovered about the 13th Amendment, meaning that you can officially blame my diatribe about it in my Human Centipede III review solely on that song.

The overall approach when it comes to assessing the actions of black people in relation to their imprisonment is quite overhead, in that it mainly focuses on the whole as opposed to individual discretions. Now, in a way, this is a bit problematic as among the people depicted as being under the iron thumb of the prison-industrial complex includes people accused of rape and murder. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that such accusations are immune from fabrication; I’m just saying that, with how this film presents them as more statistics, it can be difficult to really gel with all that is said here. But then again, these people don’t need to justify anything shown here; they shouldn’t have to. This is a documentary made for the white audience, the people who are seemingly unaffected by this system that is intent on destroying large swathes of the population in the name of socio-political ease. It isn’t trying to make people necessarily show pity on those arrested as individuals, but rather be outraged that this system has been running for as long as it has and is responsible for most if not all of those whom have been arrested and who are still behind bars as I write this. Grieving for the individuals is all we seem to do nowadays, while the regime that keeps those individuals in the crosshairs is still running smoothly; unless people are made aware of the bigger picture, things aren’t going to change. The worst part of it is that this isn’t even just solely delegated to African-Americans either, as immigrants are shown to be part of the same “book them all and let God sort them out” policy in terms of punishment.

All in all, this is an extremely powerful work. A political documentary that ends up correcting and rightfully answering past documentaries, this creates a method of discourse that informs its audiences about a lot of what goes into the politically racist attitudes of those in power in the U.S. Through its detailing of the political and financial powers involved in the scheme, it ends up taking a strangely apolitical viewpoint where pretty much everyone is part of the problem and then gives more than enough evidence to show why that is. However, at the same time, it shows that now more than any other time in history, we have the tools to make a difference. It’ll take a lot of time and effort, but it’s still possible. As a film, I’m ranking this higher than Star Trek Beyond, as the pacing for this is impossibly smooth and doesn’t feel like quite as jittery as that film did. However, again as a film, this ranks lower than Blair Witch which, in the moment, managed to scare me even more than this did.

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