Sunday, July 9, 2017

Free at Last?

Films: 13th
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

A few days ago, fellow 1001 List completer Adolytsi posted news that the next version of the book, while not available, is listed on Amazon and all of the new movies can be seen. The 2017 edition looks to add 12 movies; one is from 2015 and the other 11 are from 2016. As it happens, I’ve seen four of them and two others are on my Oscar list and planned for the next couple of months. That means I had to add six movies to my NetFlix queue. Of those, four are streaming and a fifth is available on disc, leaving only one that might be a problem in the months ahead. I’m always down for getting a jump on things, so today I decided to watch 13th.

I may be wrong, but I think this is the first NetFlix film to be included on the List, which makes it noteworthy, if that’s the case. The truth is that it’s noteworthy even if that isn’t the case. 13th is named after the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which is the one that outlawed slavery. The gravamen of the film is that while slavery was outlawed, something very akin to a loophole was included in the amendment that allowed for a kind of slavery to still take place. That loophole is that slavery or involuntary servitude is illegal except in cases where someone has been convicted of a crime.

The argument that follows is one that is certainly familiar to me. Following the ratification of the 13th Amendment, mass arrests of former slaves were conducted, essentially putting those people immediately back into a slave situation. Further, the film argues that this is something still happening; the incarceration rate in the United States is the highest in the world. The film opens with the rather shocking statistic that while the U.S. has a mere 5% of the world’s population, our borders contain 25% of the world’s prisoners. Of those millions of prisoners, African-Americans are overwhelmingly overrepresented.

As befits such a serious subject, DuVernay takes multiple paths to prove her case. The most obvious tactic is to simply look at the number of African-Americans killed by the police and others who are then, more or less, allowed to walk free. The “stand your ground” law in Florida gets a long look, and the film makes the case that the jurors of the George Zimmerman trial were specifically instructed to keep that law in mind while deliberating, but were clearly not told that, legally, Trayvon Martin would have the exact same rights.

The drug war gets a long look as well, since the drug war is one of the major factors in the ballooning of the American prison population. The film is also remarkably even-handed in where criticism is doled out. It would be easy, for instance, to hold up certain law and order elements of the American political right as being complicit in what has happened, but Bill Clinton’s endorsement of the three-strikes laws is roundly criticized as well. Commentary from both sides of the political aisle is included, and both sides are frank about mistakes that have been made in the past and that are continuing to be made.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of 13th is the revelation of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. While the film goes into great depth on this organization, the short version is to say that this is a coalition of mainly conservative politicians and business leaders who draft boilerplate legislation that can be then introduced in the national and state legislatures. The point of this aspect of the film is to draw a line between many of the laws that have been clearly detrimental to the general black community and the profit margins of various companies that are members of ALEC. While several pieces of legislation go under the microscope here, none is so fully and roundly attacked as the for-profit prison lobby and corporations.

The truth is that I’m not well-enough informed to say how accurate the film is. It makes a compelling case. It’s also a film that walks pretty closely to the way that I think already, which means that in many ways I’m the prime audience for it. Because of that, I’m a little wary of accepting it as it lays. It’s research I need to do. What it’s done, at least in my case, is make me realize that this really is research I need to do.

The truth is that I’m not going to understand the African-American experience in the United States completely. I am, after all, so white that I’m almost clear. What I can do is realize that I don’t have the understanding I need and do what I can to gain that understanding. 13th is a good place to start.

Beyond that, I think this is a film that needs to be seen. There clearly is a problem. Are the reasons what the film and Ava DuVernay claim? I think that’s very likely, at least in part. Certainly DuVernay brings her own biases to the filmmaking no matter how even-handed her treatment seems to be. At the very least, it's a large part of the puzzle, even if there are a couple of pieces that we don't know about fully. What it does, though, is start the conversation, and it’s a conversation we need to start having.

Oh, and for the record, these are the films in the next Book update:
Victoria (2015)
La La Land
Hell or High Water
The Jungle Book
Toni Erdmann
Under the Shadow
Manchester by the Sea
I, Daniel Blake


I realized as I looked back through this that I might not have fully explained what I meant in a couple of these paragraphs. When I say that I'm willing to accept Ava DuVernay's claims but feel like I should do more research on my own, I don't want to come of sounding like I am somehow doubting her experience or the experiences of the people in the documentary. I'm referring here specifically to the idea of cause for the problem, not the question of whether or not the problem actually exists. It clearly does. Serious problems, social or otherwise, tend to have multiple causal factors, though, and and with a problem this serious and significant, rooting out as many of those causal factors is critical in solving the issue.

Not to sound too touchy-feely, but I don't want to be accused of negating someone else's experience. That happens too much already, and I really don't want to be guilty of it myself.

Why to watch 13th: One of the most vital issues in modern American society.
Why not to watch: It makes the situation feel insurmountable.


  1. I'm fine with documentaries that wear their agendas honestly on their sleeves, which is one reason why I'm perfectly OK with Michael Moore's films: Moore never hides what he's about. If the right gets its panties in a bunch about a given leftie documentary, well, the right can damn well go out and make its own documentary in response.

    I completely agree with your feeling that a film—whether or not you buy in to its message—can be useful insofar as it provokes thought and starts a serious discussion, which is one reason why I like and respect Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing."

    And this is just an aside, but for what it's worth, I do think the US has a major incarceration problem, especially re: fallout from the "war on drugs." There are people in jail for drug possession and distribution who are serving longer sentences than people who are in for murder. The whole thing is a massively stupid waste of money, time, and human lives. To that extent, I think I could watch "13th" and feel a measure of anger. Thanks for the review.

    1. One of the things that 13th does very well is point fingers equally at both sides. No one who dealt with any of this starting with about Nixon and on is guiltless, and the film makes that case. Clinton easily gets as much blame as Reagan.

  2. I've only seen two of the new movies.

    Well, three now because I watched "13th" last night. Very good documentary. I especially got a kick out of Grover Norquist's lame sophistry and Newt Gingrich wanting a pat on the head for being the sensible conservative. Also, that guy from ALEC was a HOOT!

    The good news is that the new movies for the List mostly look very interesting. My niece likes horror movies and I talked her into watching "Under the Shadow." We're supposed to start it very soon. In a few minutes supposedly.

    1. The one that looks to be an issue is I, Daniel Blake. NetFlix doesn't have it yet, and neither do any of the libraries I have access to.

    2. I liked Under the Shadow A LOT! But then I have a bunch of friends who are originally from Iran and I love Marjane's Satrapi's Persepolis and many aspects of Persian culture and history. So I don't know how Under the Shadow will work as a horror film for horror fans who have no interest in the other stuff.

      My niece liked it!

    3. I expect it will be an upcoming Wednesday Horror review, likely before the end of the month.

  3. When I saw the additions to the List, I had only seen two of them - La La Land and Moonlight. So that left ten more for me to add to my personal version of the List. I'm happy to see that four of them are on Neflix streaming, and I've already seen two of those.

    I started looking around at the local cable On Demand choices and - lucky me! - all six of the other movies are available. Most of them are available for rental for $6 or $7. The only exception is Hell or High Water, which can be purchased outright for ... I think it was $12 or $15 or so. I probably won't be doing that. I'm guessing I'll be able to get it from the library, though it might take a while.

    I decided to watch I, Daniel Blake yesterday, because it seems to be one I might have trouble finding and, Who knows?, it might disappear from On Demand.

    Also, it looked kind of depressing and I figured I might be happier if I got it out of the way.

    It's a little too real. Every once in a while, I see something that is just too real and gut-wrenching and I get very anxious and sometimes it even makes my stomach hurt. The worst I ever felt after a movie was "Safe" with Julianne Moore. I start to feel nauseous just thinking about it.

    I, Daniel Blake did not affect me quite as much as "Safe" but it didn't miss by much. It's a great movie, but it was just a little too effective. I had to go to work right after and I was kind of depressed for the first few hours. And my stomach hurt for a while.

    I don't have any useful advice for watching I, Daniel Blake. If you are in a good mood, this movie will spoil it. If you are in a bad mood, you may well try to harm yourself afterwards. I suggest watching it early enough in the day so you can do something fun and festive when it's over. Like watching Million Dollar Mermaid!

    1. I;m not worried about it yet--It'll show up eventually, and I haven't checked On Demand.

      Spending money on this is a last resort for me. It's not that I can't afford a couple of bucks now and then, but it's more the principle of the thing.

      Still, if I get desperate enough and I still can't find it when December rolls around, I'll probably do something like that.

    2. Yeah, I'll certainly be checking the library to see if I can see any of these new List movies without spending $6 or $7.

    3. I didn't mean to start watching all the new films on the List so suddenly, but I've seen four in a week! Yesterday after several hours of errands for the local pet rescue and adoption organization (I volunteer A LOT! Twenty hours is a light week.) I was feeling a bit worn out and decided to lie down and watch a movie before going to work. I have a few movies on the DVR but I didn't want to watch any of them. But the new Jungle Book sounded EXACTLY like what I wanted to watch.

      Wow! Especially look for Christopher Walken as the King of the Bander-Log! I can see why it's on the List!

    4. In a perfect world, I'd be at or close to done with all of the new additions by the time the new book drops. That probably won't be the case, but I'll knock a couple more out before the end of this month, which will put me over half.

    5. I'm shooting for September 1 to have all the new movies watched.

    6. I got paranoid that Netflix would remove Victoria before I could see it, so I watched it before I went to work a few days ago. It was a little hard to watch because I wasn't really in the mood for a 140-minute movie in real time! But I persevered and discovered a very good movie that I probably would have loved had I seen it at a theater with a Coke and some Jordan almonds.

      It made me think a little of Run Lola Run and parts of it made me think of the Bruce Springsteen song "Meeting Across the River" about a couple of low-level criminal losers trying to borrow some money and get a ride to pull off a job. These lyrics: "Word's been passed, this is our last chance," made me think of Boxer and how desperate he was to involve his friends in this heist.

      The Springsteen song does not have a Spanish girl who was asked to leave the conservatory.

    7. I won't hit that, but I should be half done with them very soon.