Critique of “13th”

Photo credit: NBC News

Photo credit: NBC News

By Alex Romano, Opinions Editor

In this turbulent and even tortured era of right-wing resurgence and anti-elitist backlash, it would be unimaginable to anyone that a documentary like Netflix’s 13th would never materialize.  The film is a notable achievement in awareness-raising and a profoundly convincing summons to action, boasting a remarkable array of statistics; ample input from scholars and commentators; and compelling dissections of meticulously researched historical materials. Images of major politicians from the past half-century appear on screen throughout. Discussions of mass incarcerations and other injustices brought upon by the War on Drugs are plentiful. Insights, revelations, and disturbing anecdotes regarding the motives behind policymaking on the anti-crime front abound. And the claims that the experts featured in the documentary make come with the provision of substantial evidence.

However, with any movie that manages to be so political as “13th”, there is, of course, the inevitable agenda. And the agenda in this particular work is decidedly anti-Republican. This is not to say that Republicans themselves are targeted for attack, as there is very little outright attacking in the movie. And the filmmakers are fair and intelligent enough to use the art of persuasion rather than persecution to draw Republican viewers in to joining their side.

Now, in reading the previous paragraph, one may think that the author of this article has completely contradicted himself from his statement in the paragraph before the last. This is not so. The documentary relies largely on historical facts and events to tell its story and support its claims, and so the documentary is itself mostly a work of historical analysis. The people involved in the documentary’s production know that to help their cause they need not criticize the current Republican base, as that would be an instant turn-off for that group. At the same time, though, it would be irresponsible and unproductive for the film not to discuss the ills of conservative criminal justice policies past and their lingering effects. So the film’s strategy is thus: avoid alienating the conservative audience by showing Republican viewers the erring of their predecessors’ ways, thereby enlightening said viewers with historical revelations that they may not have otherwise known and encouraging them to alter their ways accordingly. It is an effective plan that yields positive results, but its execution demands scrutiny.

The nature of any piece of art or entertainment that has a political agenda is to support the goals of said agenda, which usually means using select bits of information and ignoring others, and conveying that information in a biased way. That may as well be a rule for any politically motivated work. “13th” would definitely not be an exception to that rule. It provides the viewer with valid and important information, but it does so while not including other parts of the story that may impact the way that the viewership receives the film. In “13th”’s case, the reason for this is benign enough: offering too much information that may contain some details that contradict or offset one another may confuse the audience, and lead to a blunted delivery of a muddled message. But some parts of the story and the assumptions that their omission from the documentary work to establish deserve a closer look. And a closer look is what it shall receive.

Richard Nixon is a good place to start, since the documentary’s discussion of “tough on crime” politics does start with him. The documentary takes a highly critical view of President Nixon’s message of “law and order” and his disdain for the civil rights movement, which the filmmakers feel he blamed for the race riots and heightening crime rates leading up to the 1968 election. Those interviewed went on to contend that with his “Southern strategy”, Nixon appealed to racism and old-school bigotry to win over the votes of white working-class Southerners. The words “law and order” are said by the filmmakers to be a part of the practice of “dog-whistle politics”, the use of coded language to express hidden meanings only recognizable by a targeted group of listeners. In Nixon’s case, “law and order” meant fascism and repression, and the dogs were the members of the white working-class South. Of course, the results of the 1968 election counter that claim, showing that Nixon’s strategy was more of a “border strategy”, or a “national strategy” that now accepted the South as a component, for Nixon still lost the Deep South to Independent candidate George Wallace. Not even the dogs were able to hear the dog whistle.

There is evidence to support the claim of possible racism on Nixon’s part, such as the president’s chief adviser H.R. Haldeman’s quote that the president’s speeches addressed that “the whole problem is really the blacks”, along with aide John Ehrlichman’s stated belief that there was always a “subliminal appeal” to racism in Nixon’s speeches. Ehrlichman also recently sparked some more interest in the topic of the War on Drugs from beyond the grave with his long-lost admission that the war began as a method to target black people and hippies, and give law enforcement the excuse to raid civil rights leaders’ homes and fracture black communities. Unmentioned in the film, but common knowledge, is that Nixon himself used every variant of racial and ethnic slur under the sun during his time in the White House and had some very interesting things to say about many groups of people, as recorded on the famous taping system that he had installed.

But these pieces of information only tell part of the story. Haldeman and Ehrlichman may have interpreted Nixon’s speeches as coded racist outcries to the resentful white underclass, but the actual speechwriters, Pat Buchanan, Ray Price, and William Safire, would likely have it otherwise. As for Ehrlichman’s undeniably damning quote with regard to the origin of the War on Drugs, one must be reminded of Ehrlichman’s character and personality. Ehrlichman was known to have been very bitter toward Nixon after he was released from prison, due to the president’s refusal to grant him a pardon before he resigned. In “Witness to Power”, his book about his time in the White House, Ehrlichman depicts Nixon in a negative light, and later referred to Nixon as being a  “pathetic figure in American history.” This was not a man who was very friendly towards his old employer. When Ehrlichman made his now-infamous statement in 1994, he partly exaggerated the impact that the War on Drugs during the Nixon years was supposed to have on African Americans. What he meant was that the war would undermine the civil rights figures of the day, along with their organizations. Nixon knew that none of the black leaders would vote for him, no matter what he did, so instead of appealing to them he decided to undermine them. He launched the war in response to political opposition from the civil rights movement, making it an excuse to go after his opponents. This certainly does not excuse Nixon or make the situation any better: persecuting and criminalizing people because they would not vote for you is still morally repugnant. All the same, it does make the point that the War on Drugs was not originally motivated by racism, but by a desire to suppress political opposition.

In attacking Nixon’s War on Drugs so early on, however, the film already overlooks other parts of the narrative that counter its claim. The film contends that the “law and order” rhetoric was insincere and cynical, a cheap attempt at gaining angry white votes, and was pure Nixonian manipulation of an uneducated and bigoted working class, and that Nixon only wanted to use brute force and police aggression to make it look like he cared. But successes in the initial stages of the War on Drugs show that Nixon was actually sincere in his desire for law and order and that he did intend to better American society. In the first $110-million budget for the War, Nixon provided two-thirds of the funds for drug treatment and education, and established the first major federally funded rehabilitation programs. Over the course of his administration, Nixon would fund treatment centers with a total of $1.1 billion. The administration also eliminated many mandatory minimum sentences (including the infamous 10-year sentence for simple possession of marijuana); funded a program to ween off heroin addicts with methadone in Washington, DC; and created a law replacing imprisonment with mandatory rehabilitation for drug charges.

Additionally, only listening to the tapes and Ehrlichman’s quote would suggest that Nixon was an enemy of civil rights, despite that he saw to the peaceful desegregation of southern schools in seven states in the South, bringing the number of segregated schools in that region down to 8% from its 68% mark at the end of the Johnson administration; initiated affirmative action; expanded the budget for civl rights enforcement by 800%; funneled millions of dollars to minority businesses through the Office of Minority Business Enterprise; increased Small Business Administration loans to minority businesses by 1,000%; increased the number of African Americans appointed to federal positions by 37%; signed legislation to battle sickle cell anemia; and, along with introducing Pell Grants, doubled federal aid to black colleges. The documentary further suggests that Nixon intended to lash back against the burgeoning movements for rights to gays, women, Latinos, and Native Americans. As president, Nixon took progressive measures such as the endorsement of the Equal Rights Amendment; the signing of Title IX; the creation of a Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for Spanish-Speaking People; and the granting of self-determination to Native Americans, among other initiatives. When considering the movement for gay rights, Nixon said that he may expect to see gay marriage become a legalized institution “in the year 2000”. In only considering the Nixon quotes on the White House tapes and not the actual material gains that he made in his presidency, one would be emphasizing private opinion over public policy, a slippery slope with regard to historiography, and all of history would have to be closely reexamined. Last word in: there are plenty of reasons to hate Nixon, the one given in the documentary may just not be one of them.

In addition to the thirty-seventh president, the film criticizes other people, too, such as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Given all of the sordid details that have been emerging since his shocking death in 1972, it would be a difficult task indeed to defend Hoover for his relentless, sometimes violent pursuit of civil rights groups and leaders. As the documentary shows, Hoover hounded Martin Luther King, Jr. and his colleagues without any scruples, and worked with COINTELPRO to suppress the civil rights movement. He even called King a “liar” and was among those who accused the minister of being a communist. The film points this out, and deservedly, too. What it does not point out, however, is that Hoover carried out most of these actions under, and sometimes in cahoots with, President Lyndon B. Johnson, as anybody who has seen “All the Way” or “Selma” can tell you.

Then why is it that, instead of making clear the dates during which Hoover dogged the civil rights movement, the filmmakers show on screen a blown-up photograph of the director standing next to Nixon? Well, since Nixon courted Southern voters to join the Republican party using, as the documentary argues, a dog-whistle (subliminal) appeal to racism, putting him in a picture next to Hoover would link the imagery to associate Hoover with Nixon, Nixon with the South, and the South with Republicans. In this way, through connection, viewers would associate the Republican party with racism, homophobia, prejudice, repression, authoritarianism, violence, and every other squalid value for which J.Edgar Hoover stood. How’s that for subliminal messaging? The filmmakers employ the same tactic of which they accused the Republican leadership.

The documentary rightly condemns the War on Drugs’ escalation and further development under the Reagan administration, highlighting the rise of mass incarcerations and incidents of police brutality throughout the 1980s. Ronald Reagan intensified the War, turning members of the American family against one another. Seeking counsel from the racially insensitive Lee Atwater, Reagan siphoned off massive amounts of money from rehabilitating abusers to funding efforts at interdiction in the narcotics trade and militarized the police in the fight against drug abusers, in the end causing the most harm to African Americans. President Reagan made the War on Drugs uglier than ever before in an attempt at superficially beautifying the nations image, so there is little that one may do to defend his actions, beyond writing that the guy meant well. But the documentary extends its theme of racial resentment acting as primary motivation for Americans to vote Republican into the presidential election of George H. W. Bush, who the filmmakers contend won solely on account of racism.

This is probably not true. In the fall of 1988, Bush did run the Willie Horton ad, prominently featuring a black murderer and rapist’s face on national television and explaining that the felon had been out on a “weekend pass” when he brutally assaulted a man and twice raped his fiancé. The weekend furlough program was a policy supported by Michael Dukakis, Bush’s opponent for the presidency that year. That smear, along with another ad featuring convicts with darkly-colored skin walking free from prison on furloughs of their own, did speak to racial fears in the American voter. However, the filmmakers failed to mention that, aside from the two ads, Bush’s campaign against Dukakis was a nasty one.

There was the flag controversy. Upon learning that Dukakis had voted against making saluting the American flag and pledging allegiance to it compulsory, Bush made nationalistic speeches decrying his opponent for lacking patriotism at a flag factory in New Jersey and in Findlay, Ohio, the alleged flag capital of the country. On another occasion, Bush ran an ad featuring a heavily polluted waterway with a caption on it incorrectly reading “Boston Harbor”, a direct shot at Dukakis’ environmental record as governor of Massachusetts. Which is ironic, considering that Bush was vice president under Reagan.

Dukakis had issues of his own, as well. His wife was an alcoholic, which proved understandably problematic for then Dukakis campaign that year. The candidate’s stage presence was put to the test when he appeared in a televised debate against Bush and an audience member asked Dukakis whether he would still refuse to support the death penalty if his daughter had been raped and murdered. Dukakis, not a very skilled debater, answered that he would still refuse to pursue the death penalty, coming across as cold and impersonal. Plus, he was a lackluster product for political marketing, too. Need we remember the tank photograph?

Bill Clinton enters the picture for a while, and he is criticized. This means nothing, though. Clinton was a Democrat in name only, and his pro-business leanings and reformer’s outlook on the welfare system are well-known. His Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act is justly upbraided in the documentary, as the act contained such harsh penalties as the “three strikes” law; a provision stating that minors thirteen years or older accused of “certain serious violent crimes” are to be tried as adults; and a grant authorizing the militarization of police at the cost of a total of $8.8 billion in government funds and the addition of 100,000 new police officers. But the fact remains: the most Republican of Democrats is the only Democratic politician (besides his wife) criticized in the entire documentary.

Then there is the equating of Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric to that of Richard Nixon, but, honestly, anybody could have told you before watching the documentary that Trump borrows heavily from Nixon, never for better, but almost always for worse. And there is also the series of Trump audio clips expounding on the need for American society to return to “the good old days” playing over images of police violence and casual acts of white-on-black brutality in the Jim Crow South, delivering an obvious message to the viewership.

That should do it. That is all that needs to be said about the documentary. It only presents its own side of the story, much like the talk shows whose hosts are John Stewart, John Oliver, Bill Maher, and Trevor Noah, in addition to every talking heads station that you can count, Fox through MSNBC. Although, what “13th” has in common with shows such as Last Week Tonight, unlike stations like CNN, is that it tells its side of the story with detailed information and statistics from unimpeachably credible sources, while ignoring other sides of the story with some information and statistics of their own. So, like the glorified comedians on Comedy Central pitching their own stories to the public, “13th” may make some viewers feel that it is safe to form a full, unbiased, and well-rounded opinion based only on what the documentary shows, and nothing more.

This is not to diminish the film in any way, though. Significant and surprising, “13th” is nonetheless an outstanding work of filmmaking, academic research, historical analysis, modern social and political commentary, and scholarly insight that deserves applause. It accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, and does it with undeniable persuasion and sincerity. Its expressed anti-Republican sentiment is not necessarily a flaw, but perhaps a necessity in promoting the documentary’s political agenda. Still, do not confuse “13th” with an objective, non-partisan, all-things-considered lesson in American political history. It is a well-researched movie, but, to paraphrase John Ehrlichman’s 1994 quote about the War on Drugs: “Did the people involved in making the documentary know that they were only telling one side of the story? Of course they did.”

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Author: Alex Romano

Alex Romano '20 is currently editor of the Opinions Section for The Gettysburgian, and is studying to earn a double major in English with a Concentration in Writing and History, and a minor in Theatre Arts. He is also a member of the Film Society and has interest in the school radio program, the literary magazine, and awards offered through the school’s English Department.

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