The Good Old Days
A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
There is an adage that has withstood the test of time, an adage that is meant to evoke an aura of goodness enveloped in the warmth of nostalgia. “The good old days” is a harkening back to a time that was kinder, gentler, more prosperous. It was a time when the economy worked for everyone and we didn’t see the rampant income inequality that is ubiquitous today. It was a time where there was social harmony surpassing all divisions and no one bothered to talk about sexism, racism, or homophobia because everyone was simply civil. It was a time when Americans were Americans and not defined by something else. There are folks who use that adage to remember a time in their own lives that was seemingly more quaint in comparison to their frenetic present. Some use it to craft fondness for a time when that civility was ubiquitous in their lives and passerby would always wear a brightly lit smile across their visages. Yet others use it to simply bathe in a golden aura of nostalgia and nothing more. The quintessential truth that that adage betrays, however, is that “the good old days” never existed to begin with. There was no moment in American history where the economy worked for everyone. Hell, unless you were a white landed gentleman, civil liberties weren’t exactly being handed out as party favors considering you weren’t likely to be anywhere near the party of independence to begin with. There was no time in America where being different from the norm (a straight, wealthy white man) didn’t impinge upon your rights. There was no time when civility existed despite societal structures of oppression, especially towards those considered to be the untouchables of society. Every harkening of “the good old days” is in a sense a betrayal of what that phrase means to evoke, an ignorant blanket statement that removes the oppression of that time and allows people to never properly learn from history.
Ava DuVernay, the director of the acclaimed Selma and the first black woman to direct a high-budget film (Disney’s upcoming adaptation of Madeleine L’Angle’s A Wrinkle in Time), visits “the good old days” in sobering terms, reflecting upon the truth that for black Americans that time never really existed. Their history in the America Alexis de Tocqueville called “The Great Experiment” began through the construct of slavery, a word whose history is treated as a construct that is almost ancient at this juncture. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade needed a moral explanation and the one provided was that the poor, primitive dark Africans needed white, Christian civilizations to bring them out of their perpetual darkness. Slavery became a mission of morality, its hours quashed more often than not. The institution became the key economic component of the entire Southern economic engine and the increasing danger to that inhumane labor system gave way to the Civil War. In contrast to popular thought, as any respected historian can note, the South did not fight the Civil War to uphold states’s rights and the North didn’t take up arms because ethnocentrism didn’t exist above the Maosn-Dixon line. The ending to that tumultuous war brought forth the thirteenth amendment, the amendment that famously abolished slavery but left a little loophole that was exploited immediately but has largely gone unnoticed in the public mindset. The amendment abolishes slavery and involuntary servitude, except as the punishment for a crime. That exception forms the crux of DuVernay’s argument that the enslavement of the black body has actually never ended, that that loophole made it in essence a crime to be black in America.
13th makes a significant case for being the best documentary of the year, a heavy feat in a year ubiquitous with stirring documentaries. Its power, in DuVernay’s steady hands, arises from how unflinching it is in its examination of how the thirteenth amendment betrayed the very human beings it has been hailed as protecting. To provide evidence for her argumentation, DuVernay pulls together individuals from all sides of the political spectrum, often to surprising ends. The camera rolls and it simply observes, allowing the argumentation to unfold in a natural way, as if there were no other way this story could be told and there’s quite a lot of it. 13th is approximately an hour and a half in length, but it somehow fits in seemingly dozens of consequences of that loophole in a way where one consequence germanely feeds into another as the sinking feeling of despair continues to grow. Five percent of this nation’s population is African-American but they comprise twenty-five percent of the prison population. The land of the free has the largest prison populace in the world and it is stacked against its own black citizens. The arguments that black Americans tend to commit the most crime is notorious in how widespread it is and often individuals making that argument tend to conveniently ignore the racism inherent within it. DuVernay shows without forcing how criminality became tied to the black body, continuing to provide the free labor in prisons that companies like Victoria’s Secret and JC Penney took advantage of. The loophole was a boon to the Southern economic engine and then the cultural milestone of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation arrived. It is hard to undermine the popularization of the menacing black figure of the film, a film that gave birth to infamous cross burnings the Ku Klux Klan became known for. The film solidified the narrative of white martyrdom in the face of the “animal-like” black man whose behavior was violent, crude and whose sexuality was inherently rabid.
As difficult as it is to underscore just how much of a cultural impact Griffith’s film has had, DuVernay manages to shock again and again by looking at angles no one would really expect or perhaps even know. One wouldn’t expect, for example, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich to acknowledge that the justice system was inherently a violation of fairness to black Americans, that no one who is white really can understand what it means to black in this country. Few would expect, perhaps, that at the 1924 Democratic convention, three hundred and fifty delegates were members of the KKK. President Richard M. Nixon’s “Law and Order” campaign, now being echoed in Donald Trump’s Republican campaign, was thinly veiled in its racial charge towards black men being the criminal center of America. Both were and are seemingly incapable of understanding that black Americans don’t just live in the inner cities, but that would destroy the narrative of the black criminals destroying Chicago. President Ronald Reagan took the war of words and turned into a literal one, creating the horror of the drug coke whose connotations pointed towards black Americans (cocaine, you see, was “cleaner”). President George H. W. Bush used the same racism in the underlying message of his Wille Norton campaign. The 1990s arrived and with it President Bill Clinton, who took the Democratic Party sharply to the right, passing the three strikes, mandatory sentencing, and the Truth in Sentencing laws, causing irreversible harm the black community in America. Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton isn’t spared under DuVernay’s camera, either, lest anyone approach this film with an assumption of partisanship at hand. Her super predators comment is aired out in completion and it is difficult not to feel a deep sense of anger when she notes that these kids called super predators had no sympathy, no empathy. That scratches the surface of what DuVernay sheds a light on, but in the light of how both major political parties and the criminal justice system, it is difficult to see when the good days will arrive at all.
Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Produced by: Howard Barish, Ava DuVernay, Spencer Averick
Written by: Ava DuVernay, Spencer Averick
Music by: Jason Moran
Cinematography by: Hans Charles, Kira Kelly
Edited by: Spencer Averick
Production Company(s): Kandoo Films
Distributed by: Netflix
Running Time: 100 minutes
Release Dates: September 30, 2016 (NYFF), October 7, 2016 (United States)
Image Courtesy: Collider