Emotions washed over the audience gathered to screen Ava Duvernay’s 13th, a documentary involving noted scholars, activists, and politicians analyzing the criminalization of African-Americans and the resultant prison boom. The Racial Justice Committee of the Winchester Unitarian Society led the evening, co-sponsored with the Network, on Friday evening, July 7.

The film’s title refers to 1865’s 13th Amendment to the constitution, which addressed abolishing slavery. However, this amendment included a loophole (in italics): “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.”

Difficult, overwhelming, heart-breaking, exhausting were the reactions to 13th’s ideas and images, presenting moments in our nation’s history from 1865 to today’s Black Lives Matter movement. From sepia photographs to cell-phone videos, the complexity and consequences of racism grow apparent.

An interesting thread connecting the years is President Woodrow Wilson having watched D.W.Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a hundred years ago, and President Barack Obama, our first Black president, now watching 13th which includes that earlier film’s harsh, stereotypical portrayals of African-Americans. The original title of Griffith’s film had been Clansman.

Film director Duvernay, whose prior film Selma gained popular and critical acclaim, wanted this documentary “to trace decade by decade, generation by generation, politician by politician, president by president” how each statement made and each decision legislated has led to this moment.

This moment in which the United States has 5% of the world’s population yet 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. More than 60% of those in U.S. prisons are people of color. One out of every three African-American men serves time in jail—disrupting families, curtailing educations, slipping behind on the economic ladder, losing voting rights.

This moment of mass incarceration and criminalization has found a continual voice in the words of our leaders—“law and order,” “super predators,” “just say no,” “three strikes and you’re out,” and an ad urging the death penalty for “those monsters,” the five Black youth falsely accused of Central Park assault.

And there are continuing economic gains accruing from mass incarceration, just as slavery provided an economic benefit to this nation. There is a vast prison-industrial complex run for enormous profit. Penal workers, with negligible wages, provide nearly free labor for corporations and increase their profit line.

What about the next moment in our nation’s history? Will GPS and other electronic monitoring devices turn certain communities into “open air prisons,” a new generation of enslavement? Will there be a perpetuation of racial inequity and the disheartening repetition of criminalization of African-Americans?

Following the film, Dr. Zareen Karani Araoz led an informal discussion, as participants struggled to share potential solutions through efforts of education, outreach, personal responsibility and from individual actions to legislative advocacy.

Patty Shepard, WUS Racial Justice Committee, suggested three immediate, concrete actions:

  1. Go to the League of Women Voters MA website and support their efforts to repeal mandatory minimum sentencing and 11 other criminal justice reform bills here in Massachusetts;
  2. Check out “What a Difference a D.A. Makes,” a new effort gaining strength to change the way public prosecutors practice. Contact Whitney Taylor.
  3. Boston Black Lives Matter is asking for help organizing around the toxic drinking water issue at Norfolk Prison. Contact Boston Black Lives Matter.

To those add a fourth and a fifth: Invite your neighbors to view Duvernay’s 13th on Netflix and discuss both feelings and ideas. Make plans to view Duvernay’s newest project The Central Park Five when it is released.