I watched 13th a couple weeks ago and in the words of the creator/director of the documentary, Ava DuVernay, I think the power of the film lies in seeing the information presented all together.


“…I think there’s something to seeing it all together in one place. You can see the color red by itself, right? But when you put it next to other colors, it creates a different picture. I think we can talk about plea bargains by themselves. We can talk about the black codes and Reconstruction by itself. We can talk about Jim Crow by itself. But when you line them up and put them all side by side, that’s what the film does, and you think, “Lord, have mercy. Look at this picture. Look where we are.”


Here are the things that stood out for me in particular:

The Numbers

I’ve read the numbers.  I’ve heard the numbers.  But watching them tick up on the screen like that was powerful.  Check out these three graphs to get an idea of what I’m talking about:






Law & Order

Seeing the way these words were used in the past makes their usage by one of our presidential candidates today especially chilling.  Now I understand more precisely why the phrase incites such fear among my friends of color.

Originally, the phrase, according to historian Michael Kazin, was tied to the broad social context of the late 1960s.  It was used as a reaction to the activists and protestors who were challenging American foreign policy (particularly with regard to the Vietnam war), traditional gender roles, racial issues, and other aspects of the social order.  Eventually, the protesting and the national unrest faded from the spotlight but the focus on crime and its racial subtext remained.

Julia Azari over at FiveThirtyEight explains that as the national unrest over Vietnam and other prescient issues of the early 1970s began to wane, “law-and-order politics evolved away from cultural questions and toward a narrower conversation about crime and punishment. This conversation, research shows, has been characterized by avoidance of overt racial terminology but undergirded by an indelible linkage to race.”

The War on Drugs

I am a child of the 80s.  The Just Say No campaign and the scrambled eggs commercial telling us This is Your Brain on Drugs were mainstays.  So I was particularly interested earlier this year when it was revealed that there was an overtly racist motivation to the crackdown on drug-related offenses.


13th touches on this but I think the direct quote from John Ehrlichman is worth reading.  Ehrlichman was President Nixon’s chief domestic advisor when Nixon announced the “war on drugs” in 1971 which set the wheels turning for decades of disastrous social and economic policies.   Here’s what Ehrlichman said…

“You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”


The Mythology of Black Criminality

So now we know that the “WAR ON DRUGS” was a direct and conscious effort to disrupt Black lives and Black communities.  And as shown in the documentary was yet another way of ingraining the mythology of Black criminality into the American mindset.  I know that I grew up with the unconscious belief that Black people were more likely to be criminals.  This belief is deeply embedded in our culture.

Culture is the knowledge, values and beliefs shared by members of a particular society and it is nurtured and perpetuated by the traditions, language, literature, art, music, and systems of said society.  So if we want to explore our culture and our socializing, we need only look so far as the stories we are telling ourselves– the books we read, the movies we make, the music we produce, the art we share, and the traditions we esteem.

Movies like “Birth of a Nation,” which was explored in 13th, reveal our culture’s beliefs and values.  That was a long time ago, though, we tell ourselves.  We don’t tell those stories anymore.  We’ve gotten better!   But have we?  Look at this image that was used to illustrate a New York Times article on domestic violence just last year.


What do we see here?

  1. A woman in distress.
    She is white.
  2. A man coercing her.  Strangling her.  Pinning her arm.  Taking her by force.
    He is black.

It could be argued that the woman’s gray arms and the mildly Asian connotations of her facial features could indicate that she is all races at once; that she is every woman. But the overall effect is that her skin is light and it’s hard to argue that the man is anything but black.

Even if we throw the artist a bone and give him the benefit of the doubt (maybe the perpetrator was supposed to symbolize the darkness of domestic violence?) the effect is still the same and this is what it tells us:

White = Innocent & Good
Black = Violent, Scary, Bad

Come on, though!   It’s just one image!  What’s the big deal?

It’s true; this is just one image.  But if we look around, we’ll see many other places where this narrative is playing out.  It’s everywhere.  We have been compounding and retelling this story in every conceivable way for generations and the New York Times image is but a minuscule top-off in an already over-brimming tank. It’s literally EVERYWHERE.  It’s even in our beloved kids movies.


Which lion is the menacing, scary, evil one?  Which the benevolent, kind, beloved?

I’m aware that Mufasa and Scar might seem like a stretch.  I do.  But it’s also how socializing works. It’s subtle.  No big thing. And given the benefit of the doubt, probably not even realized or understood by the creators of the two lions themselves.

But when we consider the Repetition Principle, which tells us that if something happens often enough, we will eventually be persuaded, we start to understand how we’ve come to incarcerate a wildly disproportionate number of Black men in our country.  We start to see why the studies show that police are far likelier to dehumanize and use force against Black children.  It’s unconscious, most of the time, but the research, which notes that black boys are perceived by White people to be far older than they actually are, found that “black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”


The information about the American Legislative Exchange Counsel was fairly new to me.  According to Wikipedia, ALEC provides a forum for state legislators and private sector members to collaborate on model bills—draft legislation that members may customize and introduce for debate in their own state legislatures.

While legal, the group has been the subject of much scrutiny for pandering to corporate influences and just a cursory glance at the bills they have helped push through – Stand Your Ground, Voter Identification, Immigration, Criminal Sentencing and Prison Management, to name a few – bills that have had profoundly negative consequences for people of color and tend to favor rich, white folks – should give us pause, at the very least.

Aside from the overly long sections with song lyrics (maybe just not my thing?), the documentary was really well done and I highly recommend it.

Want More?

Want to keep exploring?  Read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.  Or Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson










Don’t have time today for the full documentary?
Check out this 23 minute Ted Talk by Bryan Stevenson

Can’t swing 23 minutes?
This two and a half minute video is worth a watch.