I watched the 13th documentary after Professor Armstrong first mentioned in class that it might be a future assignment. I saw the documentary on January 19th, the eve of President Trump’s inauguration. There was a scene where the filmmakers juxtaposed the language Trump used about how to treat protesters at his rallies against film footage of a black journalist in a suit being kicked and punched down the street by an angry mob of white men during the integration of Little Rock High School in Arkansas. The documentary had used that film footage earlier when discussing the history of criminalizing black men, and in this context to see it played for a second time with the film footage of protestors being kicked and punched by Trump supporters was so clear to me. It took my breath away. The combination of seeing these images was like seeing the truth exposed so clearly. This is what I felt like commentators were trying to say when they would call Trump’s rhetoric racist and dangerous – but the Little Rock clip was much more clear about the goal of Trump’s words. So that part immediately sticks with me.
In a recent interview with 13th director Ava DuVernay she revealed that the footage with the man in the suit, a journalist named Alex Wilson, was even more violent than what she chose to include in the film. DuVernay also shared in the interview that during the making od the documentary she reviewed “a little over a 1,000 hours of racist violent footage” and that it was “not healthy” for her personally. DuVernay also explained that that sequence with Wilson was the “most emotional piece of footage for [her].”
Many of the facts presented in the documentary were not completely new to me, I read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” before coming to law school (the book was on our recommended reading list), so I had some understanding of the ways that the structure of our criminal justice system perpetuates a “less than citizen” group and the harms of the “War on Drugs.” It was really interesting to see all of the historical footage while the speakers were explaining the history of race relations and how the language of the 13th Amendment left that loophole for a modern version of slavery to evolve through the guise of the prison system.
Another feature of the documentary that stood out to me were the discussions of media portrayal of African Americans from the 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation” (BoaN) to present. The images produced in BoaN became pervasive in American culture, the racist vision of Reconstruction was certainly reflective of a society that felt indifferent or threatened by the political participation of African Americans. These images have been reproduced over and over. It’s chilling that images we encounter everyday through commercials, television, movies, and the news perpetuate perceived racial stereotypes.
The first memory I have of media that showed a man of color as a stalker out to take a white woman’s purity is the from the 1990 movie Ghost with Demi Moore. The scene that I vividly remember is when the paid criminal character “Willie Lopez” breaks into the Moore character’s apartment to look for evidence and opens her panty drawer to run his fingers through her intimate apparel. The “ghost” character of Patrick Swayze becomes enraged and is only prevented from taking retributive justice against the Willie character because he is dead and can’t actually hit anything. I don’t think the name of the character is a coincidence. George Bush ran a famous 1988 attack ad against his Presidential opponent Michael Dukakis claiming that Dukakis was not “tough on crime,” by highlighting a rap sheet of a black convict – Willie Horton . The ad is simple in its messaging that black men cannot be shown any mercy for crimes, that “weekend pass[es] from prison” or other attempts at humanity in criminal justice like opposing the death penalty is a threat to the racial hierarchy.
In BoaN the glorification of the Klu Klux Klan from Hollywood helped to make the Klan relevant and popular again—violent racial hatred portrayed as a noble act to protect the purity of white women. This reminds me of at least example from our class – the Scottsboro case, where a group of young black men were accused of raping two white women. Eventually the Supreme Court found that the defendants had been denied due process under the 14th Amendment because they did not have an opportunity to secure counsel. The mob mentality that pushed the trial of these young teens through to death convictions within days of the alleged incident shows that even as we claim to be a nation of laws, it is often under the guise of legality that some of the most insidious injustice takes place.