Film & Television

‘Denial’ and ‘13th’: The Tragic Endurance of Racism

Two new films, 13th a documentary about the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery, and Denial, a film version of the true story of a libel suit brought in the 1990s by Holocaust denier David Irving, offer another look at the ever-present issue of racism. Two of the most grievous of modern man’s sins against other men, both slavery and the Holocaust, remain remarkably and unfortunately relevant today. In the case of slavery, as this film explains, too relevant.

Filmmaker Ana DuVernay (Selma) sets out to show how although the Civil War ended slavery in an official sense, its legacy lives on. A well-researched and vividly filmed documentary, 13th shows how the 13th Amendment, meant to free African-Americans from enslavement, helped perpetuate it by including a loophole, which legalized forced labor for prisoners. Interviews with many leading historians, including activist Angela Davis, recall how the white hegemony immediately set about arresting and imprisoning vast numbers of former slaves for petty crimes — throwing away the key, and dooming them to what was essentially slave labor all over again.

Threading this shameful legacy through Reconstruction, the Jim Crow south, and the Civil Rights movement, the main thrust of the film is to illustrate how the current practice of “mass incarceration” has also had the same effect as slavery did: to maintain segregation and to prevent black people from advancing. Despite all the gains that may have been made in the area of racial equality, what does it mean that 1 out of 17 white men are in prison when 1 out of 3 African-Americans are now in jail? DuVernay shows how laws like “three strikes” and mandatory sentencing, as well as the crime bill signed by Bill Clinton (and supported by many African-Americans at the time) have led to this situation.

And it wasn’t entirely inadvertent. There is devastating tape of political consultant Lee Atwater advising how black communities could be controlled in this manner. The subtle, and not so subtle “dog whistles” of former politicians, including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush are examined, including Bush’s infamous Willie Horton ad. This ad, which blames policies of Michael Dukakis for granting weekend leave to a felon who raped and murdered a couple while on leave, is widely considered responsible for having led to the Massachusetts governor’s resounding defeat by Bush.

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  • Janine October 29, 2016 at 12:04 am

    I feel worried about this issue. With so many people openly endorsing a racist candidate, what are we to think of our neighbors? It’s seems like this election, or at least the GOP candidate, has “normalized” the worst kinds of language and behavior.
    We are all going to need to work hard at trusting each other again after this!

    Reply