The Unlucky 13th: Liberalizing the Extreme
Jared A. Ball originally for

“Fuck everyone.  Burn everything.” – De La Soul, “Lord Intended,” The Anonymous Nobody

My initial reaction to seeing 13th was that it puts very establishment thinkers and analyses to issues, histories and conditions which need radical, revolutionary, extreme responses.  13th may make a few obligatory nods to that as possibility, we see Assata Shakur, hear reference made to a more threatening Dr. King and get a glimpse of Malcolm X, but nothing along the lines of what that man once said which remains exactly true today:

And in my opinion, the young generation of whites, blacks, browns, whatever else there is, you’re living at a time of extremism, a time of revolution, a time when there’s got to be a change. People in power have misused it, and now there has to be a change and a better world has to be built, and the only way it’s going to be built—is with extreme methods. And I, for one, will join in with anyone—I don’t care what color you are—as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth (Oxford University, December 3, 1964).

I am not the only one to see some of this.  For different reasons, diametrically opposed actually, Armond White has a point:

In assembling a peculiar ensemble of characters, DuVernay disgraces the legacy of DuBois’s tough thinking. Of the people she spotlights, only a few actually suffered convictions such as those we saw in The Return, the documentary by Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Holloway, which followed efforts by working-class ex-cons to mend their lives after surviving the dehumanization of imprisonment. DuVernay gives more screen time to an aristocratic group of black achievers and spokespeople: Van Jones, Henry Louis Gates, Michele Alexander, Cory Booker, Khalil Muhammad, and others — all pontificating while looking glamorous and peering thoughtfully off-screen.

Perhaps more to my point is a review from the Hollywood Reporter:

But two things in particular work overwhelmingly in the film’s favor. One is its tone of poised urgency; all 38 of the interviewed commentators speak in measured, articulate tones without advocating burning the house down, yet they collectively convey a certainty that something is very wrong and that immediate actions must be taken to right the ship. The other is its maintenance of focus; no matter how many fascinating trips down side roads of history may have beckoned, DuVernay and Averick never stray far from the itinerary they clearly set for themselves, which was to illuminate the distance the country still remains from its ideal of equality for all (emphasis added).

In other words, from 13th we get a very limited and narrow view of not only the histories, politics and conditions involved with or related to mass incarceration or the continued legality of enslavement but no encouragement to any solutions (at all) or ranges of thought not already sanctioned by establishment politicians, non-profits or the Democratic Party.  In fact, so much so, my initial reaction was that 13th, certainly by its end, becomes a defacto campaign ad for Hillary Clinton.  I wasn’t alone.  Apparently the Clinton campaign saw the same thing and took to using part of 13th, the below referenced “most effective” sequencenecessitating a response of “No!” from DuVernay claiming her film is “not propaganda.”

As described in The Guardian the near culminating moments of the film include a montage –unlike any designed for critique in the film of Clinton – of Trump as Richard Nixon and his rallies as mirroring the experiences suffered by African America in previous generations:

Bill and Hillary Clinton come under a degree of fire, as much of the mass incarceration initiated by Reagan grew during the 1990s. The Democrats’ current presidential candidate’s use of the term “super-predator” is analysed and, while she doesn’t come off as badly as some others, it’s hardly a good look.  One of DuVernay’s most effective sequences, however, is saved for Donald Trump, whose campaign speeches are juxtaposed with brutal clips from the civil rights era. Simpering remarks from his hate rallies about “the good old days” are set against classic images from Little Rock as well as violence towards minority protesters by his acolytes. These scenes make 13th one of the most effective horror movies in years. Lucky, then, that the film is being released on Netflix, as viewers may need to hit pause and find a bucket into which to vomit (emphasis added).

Again, perhaps for different political reasons i agree.  The Clintons are indeed shown to be duplicitous and elite level political hustlers but then in the final third of the film there is an almost direct line of clips telling us how Hillary is willing now to sit down with Black Lives Matter activists and how she intends to reform mass incarceration. We see Obama being the “first sitting president” to visit a prison and hear him talk about there now being a “chance” to do something.  (Of course this is said by a lame duck president who convinced so many in 2008 and a few less in 2012 that he was the “chance” to improve things…)  We then get even to hear from the right discussion of their preference for privatized in-community/in-home surveillance and incarceration.  We do then get that curiously placed vague set of warnings featuring Angela Davis cautioning that reform often leads to “more repression.”  But then, after such a warning, Trump as neo-Nixon boogieman is dropped, that most powerful montage, the film’s “most effective” scene, rage-inducing clips of violence suffered by Black women and men roll on while he assumes the Nixonian title of “Law & Order” president.  The implicit message remains and mirrors Clinton campaign supporters’ current messaging: we know you hate our candidate but she isn’t Trump.  And now thanks to WikiLeaks we know this was indeed the plan as far back as April of 2015 when the DNC began in lock step with the Clinton campaign to work aggressively to develop Trump as a “Pied Piper” candidate who would be the apparent, immediate frontrunner and eventual winner of the Republican nomination specifically to drag that party to an insane right so that Hillary would appear the only viable option to voters.  Voila!

Acknowledging intent is unnecessary and DuVernay’s late disclaimer that hers is not a propaganda piece for the Democrats is irrelevant.  To the extent that the filmmakers, supporters, promoters, funders, etc. want or claim 13th to be informative or educational little is done in it to perform either regarding solutions of any kind, less so for solutions which might extend beyond a soft liberal Democrat/Republican consensus.  To the un/under-informed intended audience the absence of overt encouragement to, for instance, support neither political party while joining, developing, supporting an existing alternative or new one is tantamount to saying vote now for Hillary and forever the Democrats. And aside from the obvious and previously mentioned “most effective” montage are at least two other pieces of evidence suggesting the intentionally narrow political range offered (notwithstanding the obvious on-screen acknowledgements in the final credits to Oprah Winfrey and Deray McKesson).

The first is the narrow political frame used in assessing the problem of mass incarceration.  The false balance created is the same created by establishment press/media in general one held comfortably between liberal Democrats and the least rabid seeming Republicans.  From Van Jones to Newt Gingrich who, of course, already have a long-standing working relationship.  Unwitting viewers are not encouraged to know this by 13th or how both work with the super right-wing Koch brothers, businessmen who have insinuated themselves into nearly every aspect of national economic and political life.  A year ago we raised this question with Abolitionist Law Center attorney Bret Grote who surmised then what 13th suggests is coming; a right-wing capitalist venture to lock us all in our homes and communities while, of course, reaping big profit rewards in the process.

But as Grote also discussed with us then the severe limitations put on us by the kind of left-right coalition presented both in the Koch coalition and in 13th.  These limitations were described in another of our previous interviews with former member of the Black Panther Party, Black Liberation Army and political prisoner Dhoruba bin-Wahad in which he pointed out the shortcomings in having people who themselves do not ascribe to certain radical politics interpret those histories.  His specific concern then of Amy Goodman and Angela Davis discussing the history and politics of Assata Shakur is nearly repeated once more in 13th.  Shakur is mentioned as are (sort of) the differently radical Dr. King, the one often ignored in his commemorations, and passing reference is made to the Panthers as is their description by J. Edgar Hoover as national threats.  But, for instance, the politics that made these people and organizations threatening are not mentioned, so nothing is discussed of their socialism, pan-Africanism or willingness to engage in armed struggle.  This fits because not a word of the project instituted by Hoover to capture all varieties of radicalism is uttered.  The Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) is never referenced nor its assaults on the Chicano, Indigenous/First Nations, anarchist, labor, socialist and communist movements.  These histories speak more the real nature of the state and our collective relationship to it, as well as, the role played by mass incarceration, surveillance and more, and all of which is on-going, worsening and requiring analyses be offered that weaken potential rebellious efforts.

The danger here is that audiences, many of whom will praise 13th, will be left with no real encouragement to explore the politics that make possible the changes we either already want or that are apparently being called for in the film.  But 13th isn’t a radical film calling for radical solutions, it is a film which purports a kind of progressivism but one that is really wedded sadly to the very political structures that makes/need/benefit from all these problems. (This also why I’ve argued previously that Selma makes no reference at all to Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture.  Not even a history with which he was intimately involved can be allowed to include a man and an array of ideas long thought/hoped eradicated).  This point, and several other important ones – including the exposure of some key factual flaws in the film regarding incarceration rates, an undo focus on Black men and not Black (all other) women as the fastest growing imprisoned population, etc. – was made recently by Dan Berger:

13th describes mass incarceration as a backlash to the civil rights and Black Power movements, with some compelling footage of Black Panther Assata Shakur and other activists. Yet the film focuses more on what FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and President Nixon thought than on what they—or others—did. The reference by CNN contributor Van Jones to the imprisonment, exile, or death of Black activists in the 1960s appears only in the context of why there was not more opposition to the 1994 Crime Bill rather than as part of examining the foundations of mass incarceration in the political repression of 1960s-era social movements. The film does not discuss the policies that gave greater power to police, prosecutors, and prisons in those critical years.

Mass incarceration began through twinned campaigns of targeted antiradicalism alongside the broad political economic destabilization of working class communities of color in the 1960s. It was not simply the “evolution of racial caste,” as Michelle Alexander states. Rather, mass incarceration has always been a bipartisan political project of social control—a counterrevolution by liberals and conservatives alike. It is too narrow to, as the film does, date mass incarceration to Ronald Reagan’s expansion of the war on drugs in the 1980s and Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill.  That puts the onus on federal prison policy, when 90 percent of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in this country are in state prisons and local jails. Prisons, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore documents in Golden Gulag, were the state-by-state geographic solution to the American government in crisis.

My second suggested bit of evidence that 13th is ultimately limited to being a product suitable for at best Democratic Party politics is that it is in the end a Netflix media product.  Inspired by a conversation i had about the film with colleague David Barney during which he simply asked, “who owns Netflix?” we found, in just a few clicks, some interesting clues as to why 13th has been so welcomed by an establishment mainstream media outlet.  One is Netflix’s largest stockholder Capital Research Global Investors.  This private equity group holds hundreds of positions (438 to be exact as of June 2016) in everything from computing to communications to pharmaceuticals which, among other things, means that Netflix is but one small portion of an international operation and is a property expected to perform as any other; make profit without upsetting any particular political, economic or ideological positions held by investors.  Contrary to the encouraged belief (and hopes) of many media are indeed commercial product like any other.  They are not merely entertainment or informative, they are ideological.  They are political. Assata may indeed be mentioned but not interviewed, nor anyone explicitly holding her politics, and certainly none of the other current or former political prisoners who are part of the mass incarcerated but who also often hold very different interpretations of the problem than those most often offered up as experts.

And oh yea, by the way, the second largest stockholder in Netflix is the Vanguard Group.  Our audiences may find this familiar since as we heard some time ago from Homeboy Sandman about how Vanguard is the largest stockholder of the largest private prison operation Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and third largest holder of stock in both media giants Viacom and Time Warner (recently bought by AT&T).  Once again, the very entities who literally benefit from the extension of enslavement by the 13th amendment are also largely responsible for our lack of relevant news or media coverage of the problem and who now are heavily involved in shaping mass interpretation of this and related problems.  This is why i argue that media product like 13th are dangerous.  They are well-crafted ideological weaponry developed, distributed and promoted to serve the commercial, social, political and ideological goals of ownership.  This process is not overt, nor is it necessarily conscious. It is the result of a process, one that involves decisions as to what products will be developed and purchased, who will be interviewed or made legitimate and what solutions are included explicitly or implicitly.

13th makes no overt suggestion of next steps or solutions.  What it does is assure that it offers none that will go beyond the accepted range of Democrat and semi-sane (ostensibly at least) Republican consensus all of which is what has led us to this point.  This is its primary political function; take an issue at the forefront of current political struggle in the streets and give it a frame suitable to established power.  Just as in truth enslavement was far more than a southern issue but a national one supported by both sides of the civil war divide and houses of congress so too is the contemporary form.  To this extent the film is almost fair in making plain the complicity of both parties (to an extent) only in the end to return the viewer back to the only acceptable conclusion, vote for the lesser of evils, do not stray analytically too far from the same plantation being described.  Its a pre-determined conclusion based on the invited punditry and filmmakers, a conscious political/ideological safety assuring nothing is fired out of field, no drawing outside prescribed lines.


  1. Hi! I am in a student organization with the goal of stopping our college from resigning with Aramark in 2020. We were planning on showing 13th to make people more aware, but your criticisms are so valid. Do you recommend any films that aren’t as liberal that discuss mass incarceration and prison slavery?


    1. Thank you. I am not entirely sure off hand and will think on it some. But id even start with Do Not Resist a recently banned from Netflix doc that is just cinema verite and shows the police more honestly as an institution. But id also just suggest following up on some of the names ive mentioned here and see what they had to say. What does Assata Shakur say now? Plenty. George Jackson and Huey Newton and others also still speak from their works on mass incarceration. And i still think Greg Thomas’ critique of Michelle Alexander says it all best and should be part of your reference materials:

  2. As much as I like the idea of Black women [or men] film directors of prominence, in Sis DuVernay ‘s 2 prominent films, ‘Selma’ & ‘the 13th, She leaves out key people who apparently were too so-called ‘controversial’. In Selma it was Bro Kwame Toure’ [aka Stokley Carmichael], & now in the 13th it’s the voices of those formerly incarcerated- especially those political prisoners. And of those Black ‘academics’ whom Sis DuVernay does feature n the 13th, IMO only Michelle Alexander is unquestionably relevant. 3 of her Black commentators: Skip Gates, Van Jones & Cory Booker are IMO ‘problematic’, while Repug Newt Grinch-witch is far beyond just ‘problematic’.

    And how can anyone make a film of such subject matter that reference to Gay Edgar Hoover & ‘Tricky Dick’ Nixon roles, yet fail to mention COINTELPRO?? IMO Hoover was NOT only actively involved in the decimation via all manner of Dirty Tricks of the BPP Party [IE: Fred Hampton’s execution while sound asleep], IMO his EVIL & Slimy ‘figure-prints’ are all over MLK’s assassination & most likely Malcolm’s too [Ditto again for the JFK Hit]. Dhoruba Bin Wahad notes Nixon’s & Hoover’s so-called War on Crime & Drugs was really just a stepped War on Black & Brown people- leading directly to the current mass Black incarceration regime. So how can Sis DuVenay over look that, except try to appease her mainly white, a mainly white ‘liberal’ audience & benefactors??

  3. “The danger here is that audiences, many of whom will praise 13th, will be left with no real encouragement to explore the politics that make possible the changes we either already want or that are apparently being called for in the film.”

    I believe you had a similar critique of Michelle Alexander’s book. Since this film is on Netflix, I presume that the audience that this film was made to inform (urban white people age 25-34 with Netflix subscriptions) will be far more informed about the historic and litigious dehumanizing of black folks in the U.S.

    If you think that the average 25-34 y/o white person living in Netflix dense areas (Seattle, San Francisco, DC) knows what the 13th amendment is or has a deep understanding of the profitable prison industrial complex, you are giving them way too much credit.

    I think that your desire to get this audience to be encouraged to explore this subject matter may also be too lofty. The intended audience is likely to watch this and consider it an achievement in “wokeness” just to have seen it and discussed it.

    The intended audience has to learn to crawl and then walk towards justice.

    You are not the intended audience Prof. Ball. Also, your students seem encouraged to learn more (Q3 of your survey). They, more than you, are probably closer to the audience AD sought to reach.

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