MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
On Netflix Streaming
Rated TV-MA (I would rate this R.)
Directed by Ava DuVernay. Documentary
Racism has always been a part of American life and (coincidentally) throughout most of the civilized world. In spite of Biblical pronouncements that God’s creation of humanity was “very good”, it seems that many people spend a great deal of our time on earth trying to justify why some lives matter more than others.
America’s practice of slavery treated black men and women as property and as less than human. The subjugation of slaves and the protest against slavery not only divided a nation but also the Methodist Episcopal Church. Following the Civil War and the enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution in 1865, slavery was no longer allowed in the United States.
However, as pointed out early in this film, there was an exception to this principle. “Neither slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”
The main thesis of 13th is that throughout the 150 years since the end of slavery, people of color have been objectified and identified with criminal behavior, leading to our current system of mass incarceration with a prison population over 1,000,000 and the current statistic that 1 out of every 3 young black men will spend time behind prison bars.
That’s a strong premise (and not without controversy) but co-writer and director Ava DuVernay (who directed the award-winning 2014 film Selma) has done her homework and makes a strong argument for her case. Two of her primary interviewees (in a film filled with thoughtful spokespersons) are Bryan Stevenson, public defender of the poor and marginalized (and author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption) and Michelle Alexander, professor of law at The Ohio State University and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. What distinguishes Stevenson and Alexander in the public discussion concerning racism is their high level of compassion and empathy for those in prison. Recent decades have seen an incredible increase in imprisonments, with the Reagan Era’s War on Drugs including tough drug laws against the possession of marijuana and the Three Strikes stance introduced during the Bill Clinton presidency. America has more people behind bars than any other country in the world (25% of all prisoners worldwide). A prison industry has grown that includes cooperation with for-profit prison systems to house the felons and in-house factories creating products for consumption by major companies (which use cheap prison labor).
13th covers a lot of ground in its brief running time, but it is best described as a film of righteous indignation rather than a harsh polemic. We hear from Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, activists and professors. Voices include historian Henry Lewis Gates, former radical Angela Davis, controversial senator Charlie Rangel and conservative pundits Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist. All agree that something must be done.
The film intends not only to shake up the viewer but also to offer up the hopeful possibilities of reform. Jesus is bold enough to include the visitation of prisoners as a means of encountering God’s presence (Matthew 25:36). As people of faith, should we do any less?
Five halos: A powerful and important film about racism and mass incarceration in American history after the time of slavery.
Four pitchforks: Extreme racism, pictures of torture and death, occasional strong cursing, brief frontal nudity.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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