13th (2016) Review

13th_filmScore: 5/5

“We may have lost the sheets of the Ku Klux Klan, but cleary when you see black kids being shot down… we didn’t clear this cancer.” – Charles Rangel

Slavery was abolished when the United States ratified the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.

The 2012 film “Lincoln” focused on how Abraham Lincoln and his cohorts got the amendment passed by Congress in 1864. Director Steven Spielberg portrayed it as a major step towards full equality for all Americans, and there is no doubt it was.

But Constitutional amendments have consequences. The First protects all forms of speech including hate speech while the Second could not keep up with the rapid evolution of firearms. In Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” the consequences of the Thirteenth Amendment are explored.

The first section of the amendment reads (emphasis the film’s):

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Today, one out every four Americans – a statistic from the film – is incarcerated; roughly 2.3 million people. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 40 percent of those 2.3 million are African American even though they only make up 16 percent of the population. DuVernay uses “13th” to argue that because of 14 words, the United States became prison happy.

DuVernay demonstrated her filmmaking mastery in “Selma” but this documentary proves that she is one of the most articulate and informed filmmakers working today. Any filmmaker would have focused on the broader theme of mass incarceration without exploring the elements that contribute. DuVernay not only explores these elements, but she lingers on them just long enough for the rage to boil over.

With the slaves free there was a lack of available labor to rebuild the economy of the south. In addition to share cropping, white southerners also began arresting blacks for minor crimes so that they could be used as free labor. These arrests of black men created the myth that they were uncontrollable criminals, barely human.

But the fear doesn’t stop at that stereotype. “13th” contributes the massive prison population to Richard Nixon’s “law and order” campaign which planted the seeds for Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs. These are not new facts. Students of politics and history as well as the average stoner know that the war on drugs targets people of color more than whites.

But the film brings a larger context to this. The masterminds behind these campaigns knew exactly what they were doing – I will not specify because the anger needs to be experienced. These were not crusades for security and morality, they were diabolical strategies to consolidate the white vote for the Republican Party.

But politicians, regardless of their political affiliation, have to be tough on crime. Democrats like Charles Rangel and the Clintons supported harsh crime legislation because it became the new norm. Some even went as far as coining the term “super predators” – people who were beyond rehabilitation.

With an issue as heavy as mass incarceration it’s easy to end with resolution or at least hope. In “The Hunting Grounds” which tackles campus sexual assault, it ends with the growing support that victims have. There’s already outrage over the justice system and how it treats people of color. Institutions that were staunch opponents of these reforms are now becoming more flexible as the mood changes.

But DuVernay is too smart to let them slide. A professor from UC Santa Cruz makes it clear that history shows that when the establishment takes the lead in reforms, it usually leads to more repression. It leads me to think of Lyndon Johnson.

In addition to passing the Civil Rights Act, Johnson also initiated a war on poverty. He crafted his strategy with the help of both experts and the poor. This plan and the legislation that came from it came to be fittingly known as “The Great Society.”

“13th” is currently streaming on Netflix.

Confirmation (2016) Review

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on April 30, 2016

Confirmation_posterScore: 2/5

HBO’s latest original film, “Confirmation,” is a minor addition to the channel’s recent repertoire of political dramas in the same strain as 2008’s “Recount” and 2012’s “Game Change.”

But instead of exploring the behind-the-scenes operations of political campaigns, the film instead explores the confirmation process of Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Even before Thomas’ colleague Anita Hill came forward with her sexual harassment allegations against him, Thomas was a figure steeped in overwhelming controversy. As a textualist that believed the Constitution must be interpreted as it was originally written, he was accused by many liberals of not caring about civil rights.

Regardless of the controversy surrounding Thomas’ jurisprudence, the Senate – at that time controlled by the Democrats – was sure that he was a shoe-in for the court.

It wasn’t until a staffer for Ted Kennedy found Hill’s name that she ever felt the need to come forward.

Hill is portrayed by Kerry Washington, who doesn’t at all look like the real Hill, but instead embodies her. She embodies how Hill carried herself during the proceedings and how she anticipated the waves of criticism and skepticism that were bound to follow.

Wendell Pierce portrays Thomas, not as a man who knows he did something wrong and is trying to cover it up, but as a man who is sure that he has done nothing wrong. To him the hearings were a political circus, a public humiliation, or in his own words “a high tech lynching.”

Overseeing these hearings is the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Joe Biden (Greg Kinnear). The members of the committee are all men and Senate lifers: old segregationist Strom Thurmond, Republican yes-men Alan Simpson and Arlen Specter, and failed presidential candidates Paul Simon, Ted Kennedy and Biden.

Biden’s leadership style throughout the hearings was centered on compromise, to a fault. Because of his approach, the GOP members were able to walk over him and Hill was left abandoned.

However, these powerful dynamics and themes of gender and race are completely ignored by director Rick Famuyiwa.

Instead, the main focus that “Confirmation” has is on the personal struggle of Thomas at home. Too much time was spent at Thomas’ Washington, D.C, townhouse as he ignored Hill and the hearings. This came off as if Thomas was the true victim of the entire affair, which is far from the truth.  Famuyiwa tried to find two sides to a story that was clearly an all-out assault on a victim of sexual harassment. This doesn’t come from research, this comes from scenes in the film.

There’s a moment when Republican members of the committee are called inside the White House by Chief of Staff Kenneth Duberstein (Eric Stonestreet) to discuss tactics for the hearings. There were only two ways the narrative could end: Hill’s story ends up being true (meaning Bush nominated a pervert), or Hill is a liar. As history shows, the committee worked as hard as they could to prove that the latter was correct.

Orrin Hatch read passages of “The Exorcist” to imply that Hill plagiarized one of the harassment accounts. Missouri Senator Jack Danforth consulted with psychologists to see if a mental illness existed that would cause Hill to create fictional scenarios in her head.

When it comes down to it, this was not a high-tech lynching of Thomas. This was the Republican Party slut-shaming Hill.

But this was the movie that could have been. I can no longer dwell on what could have been. What exists now is a film that can only be described as entertaining at best, and disappointing at worst.

“Confirmation” is now streaming on HBO Go.