13th –Not a Lucky Number

13th

13th

The Academy award-nominated documentary by director Ava DuVernay (Selma) opens with the deeply disturbing fact that, even though the U.S. has only 5 percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. This is mass incarceration and it is deeply ingrained with race and our judicial system.

The beginning of 13th is almost a recap of Slavery by Another Name. (See my review  , September 17,   2016). We see the Jim Crow laws up close and personal. Convict leasing and lynchings reached their peak at the turn of the 20th century. This vigilantism had the support of businesses who needed free convict labor to substitute for slavery which had been ostensibly outlawed by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Increasingly, as labor was needed, more behavior was criminalized. Historical photos and movie footage disturbingly show what happens when blacks use whites-only facilities, look at a white person eye-to-eye, congregate in small groups or fail to move off the sidewalk at the sight of a white person. At the same time, blacks were excluded from the judicial system as jurors and, when sentenced for violating a Jim Crow law, were given fines they could not pay, sending them back to prison to become free labor.

Convict labor took a new turn following the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s. We see the connection between the war on drugs and mandatory sentencing of drug users, the rise in prison labor, and eventually the symbiotic relationship with for-profit prisons. 13th notes the Republican Party’s appeal to Southern white conservatives, to be the party to fight the war on crime and war on drugs. After their presidential candidates lost to Republicans, Democratic politicians including Bill Clinton joined the war on drugs. Insidiously, this “war on drugs” became a war on blacks. Minority communities endured severe penalties for first offenders while young white offenders were often given probation. By the late 20th century, mass incarceration had become an industry with privatization of prisons  served by corporate contractors to supply phone, clothing and food at exorbitant prices. Securus, for example, provides telephone services at exorbitant rates and Aramark  provides food services that are often substandard.These same special interest groups lobby for criminalizing minor activities and lengthening sentences in order to keep the prisons to capacity. For the prisoners, one felony conviction–for a minor drug offense–virtually ensures that their prospects for stable employment, living arrangements, and even voting would be out of reach.

The film explores the role of ALEC (The American Legislative Executive Committee), backed by corporations, that has provided like- minded state and federal legislators with draft templates for legislation to support the prison-industrial complex among other issues. Only after journalists exposed ALEC’s corporate sponsors did corporations like Wal-Mart and others drop out of the organization.

The relationship between profits based on 19th century slavery and profits based on for-profit private prisons is depressingly illustrated. 13th explores the demonization of African Americans to serve political ends, contributing to fears of minorities by whites and the persistent problems of police brutality against minority communities. In the 21st century, the regularity of fatal police shootings of unarmed minorities in apparently minor confrontations has been demonstrated by videos taken by bystanders and by the increasing use of cams in police cars or worn by officers. DuVernay ends the film with a graphic mosaic  of recent videos of fatal shootings of blacks by police.

DuVernay powerfully shows that the United States, in the final analysis, has to recognize its role in criminalizing not a subset of black people but black people as a whole. This has become a heinous process that, in addition to destroying untold lives, effectively transferred the guilt for slavery from the people who perpetuated it to the very people who suffered through it. The over-incarceration of adults, the movie goes on to assert, has severely damaged generations of black and minority families and their children.

This is an extraordinary film, a history lesson for us all.

“Land of Mine” (2015)–Made for You and Me

 

Land of Mine movie

Land of Mine

Inspired by true events, the 2016 Oscar-nominated foreign film “Land of Mine” is a harrowing depiction of what many consider to be Denmark’s worst war crime.

Nazi Germany buried 1.5 million mines along Denmark’s coast in preparation for an invasion by the Allied forces that never took place. After World War II ended, more than 2,000 German prisoners were sent to disarm those landmines. “Land of Mine” focuses on fourteen German teenage prisoners who are forced to defuse 45,000 mines from a Danish beach, restoring it for future use. Promised a return to their homes upon defusing all the mines, the life-threatening mission begins.

“Land of Mine” powerfully conveys the Danes’ bitterness towards the Nazi occupation, a rage so terrible that dismembered or exploding young boys were an acceptable, if uncomfortable, consequence. The exploitation and death of children is viewed as collateral damage, the price of war. As the cycle of victim and tormentor are reversed,– the Nazi boys by Danish soldiers– the Danes turn off their humanity.

Perhaps the most memorable arc in an extraordinary story is the dramatic change in Sergeant Carl Rasmussen, a Danish soldier put in charge of the boys at a desolate outpost.   Feeling a visceral hatred for his enemy, Rasmussen is brutal and indifferent, demonstrating his affection only towards his dog.

With its philosophical and psychological dramatization of dehumanizing the enemy, “Land of Mine” is profoundly anti-war. The tranquillity of the beach is painfully contrasted with what lies beneath the sand. With bare hands, crawling and trembling, the German teenagers–half-starved and terrified–have no choice but to comply. There is no escape. With every landmine that explodes, the viewer is as surprised as the boys who are trying to defuse the bombs. Not one moment is safe. And the boys cry out for their mothers.

The cinematography in “Land of Mine” captures not only the beautiful Danish seascape, but also the desperate, bewildered mood of teenagers who never wanted to be soldiers.

 

Note: “Land of Mine” is currently playing in select indie movie theaters.

“Pure”–A Torn Soul

 

Pure the movie

Pure (2010)

In the Swedish film “Pure” (2010) 20-year old Katarina (Alicia Vikander has her breakthrough role before ” Ex Machina” and “A Danish Girl”). She is determined to flee her dreary grungy life, bullied by tormenters at school and neglected by her alcoholic prostitute mother. Everything changes when she hears a performance of Mozart’s Requiem, opening up a new world to a soul aching for an intellectual life. But the path she has to follow in order to escape proves a treacherous one, filled with lies, betrayal and a dangerous liaison.

She has been a combative, fiery, but aching soul. Katarina’s love for music and her eagerness to learn gain her the position of Concert Hall receptionist where Adam the composer introduces her to great literature and philosophy. Dramatic changes, created by her burgeoning awareness, transform Katarina. “Courage is life’s only measure”, a quote she has learned from an admirer of Kierkegaard’s philosophy, becomes her mantra. Music saves her soul and her life, but with unintended consequences.”Pure” rapidly takes the viewer on a roller coaster of surprising turns and an even more surprising end.

The entire film depends on the performance of Alicia Vikander as Katarina, and that performance is flawless. First, we see her as a young girl of passion, through her disillusionment. Second, in the very last scene, her soulful eyes are both exhilarating and deflating.

Catch this underrated psychological thriller and its unexpected ending as soon as you get the chance. Instant stream on Netflix.