Race Matters

The criminalisation of black America resonates in the UK: A review of 13th

Runnymede's policy officer Kimberly McIntosh illustrates how Ava DuVernay’s documentary on mass incarceration in America is just as relevant for a UK audience.

13th is a harrowing synopsis of US history and what happens when racism meets policy. Taking us on sweeping journey from the abolition of slavery to the present day, DuVernay shows us why racism still stains institutions. Free labour, she argues, was and still is the cornerstone of US economics.

13th makes a convincing case. From Nixon to Clinton, US presidents have found new ways to oppress African Americans since it became unacceptable to be explicit in law. Some of the parallels between the US and the UK are striking. Much like a sitcom with a British and American version – the producers may be different but the plot lines are similar.

13th tells the tale of mass incarceration: the US holds almost 25% of the world’s prisoners and 40% of them are black. While in the UK, black people are four times more likely to be in prison than white people; proportionally, black people have more chance of being imprisoned here than in the US.

The documentary is a visual version of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Case for Reparations and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, who features in the film as an expert. 13th effectively situates the African American present in the racially coded economic and political decisions of the past, with jazzy graphics to bring shocking statistics to life. The mix of personal stories with experts – from Newt Gingrich to Angela Davis – makes DeVernay’s case compelling yet authoritative.

The title is a nod to the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery, which DuVernay makes clear was only replaced by more subtle ways to subjugate African Americans. If you’re a criminal, you are not free. Rebranding black men as violent criminals by nature gave way to a new form of slavery. The myth of black criminality was born. DuVernay uses the 1919 film The Birth of a Nation to illustrate how successful this trope was.

And a look at how the media portray black men today shows how pervasive it still is. With real life ramifications on juries and street policing. The myth is potent on both sides of the pond, and while the film looks at the US, it doesn’t take much research to find parallel stories at home. A report on media representations of black young men found that nearly 7 in 10 stories on black men and boys were related to crime. It’s no wonder that black men are disproportionately victim to ‘stop and search’ and the use of Tasers. Overrepresented in negative news stories, criminality colours how black men are perceived. 13th skilfully sketches how Reagan, Nixon and both Clintons played on this stereotype to win elections and filled private prisons in the process.

The power of language is important here. Harrowing and haunting, 13th successfully charts the criminalisation of black America. When it became unacceptable to air racial resentment in public, crime, law and order, tradition and morality became proxies. Being ‘tough on crime’ became a gloss that made the backlash against modest Civil Rights gains palatable. And Trump’s election win shows how powerful this still is. One of the most powerful clips in the film is a montage that cuts between Trump harping for the ‘good old days’ at rallies and brutal scenes from the Civil Rights era. There were no good old days for black America. Hopefully, they are yet to come.
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