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The singular urgency of Ava DuVernay's 13th

June 2, 2020

On Sunday afternoon, I was on the phone with one of my Oxide co-founders, Steve Tuck. He and I were both trying to grapple with the brazen state-sponsored violence that we were witnessing: the murder of George Floyd and the widespread, brutal, and shameless suppression of those who were demonstrating against it.

Specifically, we were struggling with a problem that (bluntly) a lot of white people struggle with: how to say what when. An earlier conversation with Steve had inspired me to publicly say something that I have long believed: that on social media, you should amplify your listening by following voices that you don’t otherwise hear. I had tweeted that out, and Steve and I were talking about it. In particular, Steve was wondering about telling people to see 13th, a 2016 documentary by Ava DuVernay that he had found very moving when he had seen it last year. I had taken my kids to see DuVernay’s superlative Selma years prior, and I had heard about 13th (and I had recalled my wife saying she wanted to watch it), but it was — like many things — “in the queue.” Steve was emphatic though: “you need to watch it.”

If I may, an aside: we — we all, but especially white Americans — run away from difficult subjects. With our viewing habits in particular, there are things that we know we absolutely should watch that we just… don’t. The reasons are often mundane: because the time isn’t right; because we’re tired; because we want to be uplifted; because we’re ashamed. For my wife and me, this was Hotel Rwanda, a Netflix DVD (!) that we had sitting on top of the DVD player for literally years, not having the heart to send it back — and yet never in the mood to watch it.

Fortunately, 13th was not to share Hotel Rwanda‘s fate: not only is Steve persuasive, it felt especially apropos as my wife and I were looking for ways to talk about the George Floyd murder and subsequent uprising with our kids — so I got off the phone with Steve, my wife and I got the family together (pretty easy when living in self-isolation!), and we watched it.

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a documentary as important. More than anything, it is revealing: it connects dots that I didn’t realize were connected — and it shows, with a stunning diversity of voices (Angela Davis and Newt Gingrich?!), just how deeply racist our criminal justice system is. Not that it isn’t also horrifying in its revelations: my kids gasped several times, including learning of the stunning growth in incarceration — and of the jaw-dropping fraction of inmates that never stood trial for their crime. And there was plenty of horrifying education beyond the figures; I knew a prison/industrial complex was out there, but I never imagined that it could be such a deliberate, pernicious octopus.

I’m not going to spoil any more of it for you; if you haven’t already seen it, you need to watch 13th — and you need to watch it now.

Actually, I’m going to phrase it even more bluntly: it is just 100 minutes (very deliberately not longer, as it turns out; watch the excellent conversation between Ava DuVerney and Oprah Winfrey for details); you more or less can’t leave your home; and America is boiling over on this very issue. So let’s put it another way: if you are unwilling to watch this now, be honest with yourself and realize that you are never going to watch it. And if you are never going to watch it, please spare us all the black squares and the trending hashtags: if you do not have 100 minutes to give to this most important topic at this most critical moment, you are not actually willing to do anything at all.

So you need to watch it, but is watching a documentary really the answer? Well, no, of course not — but that isn’t to say film can’t change the collective mind: The Day After famously informed Ronald Reagan’s views on the dangers of nuclear war, at a(nother) time when humanity felt perilously close to the brink. And I do believe that 13th could have that kind of power — so I would ask you to not only watch it, but use your voice (and, for many of you, your privilege) to get others to do the same.

Once you’ve watched it — and once you’ve gotten your friends and family to watch it — the tough work begins: we need to not merely reform this system, we need to rethink it entirely. And for this, you want to get your resources to the non-profits taking this on (there are a bunch out there; one in particular that I would recommend is The Equal Justice Initiative). Thanks to Ava DuVernay for making such a singularly important film — and thank you in advance for doing her (and us all!) the service of watching it!

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