Ban All Blockbusters

Watch “13th” tonight, get some sleep, and wake up tomorrow ready to act.

This is a new documentary from Ava DuVernay, the director of “Selma” (2014), currently available to stream on Netflix.

“13th” examines racial inequality in the United States by focusing on the issue of mass incarceration stemming from the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution. The film aims to put on stark display the patterns of oppression which black Americans have experienced, from disproportionate imprisonment, to Jim Crow, to broad racial profiling. Rest assured that DuVernay knows exactly what she is doing, combining the incredible heart seen in “Selma” with the prowess of a director having several documentaries under her belt already. She executes her purpose with laser precision.

I watched “13th” with my roommate Christian Strange, a fellow third year School of Drama student. He is a black man from South Carolina.

Strange is a clear-eyed, intelligent man, with a keen desire to improve the world around him and share his story. I was excited to experience this documentary with him and to explore how our feelings related afterward.

Here is a selection of our thoughts:

Christian Strange: This being my second time watching ... I started to think about how many people have sacrificed their lives and laid their lives down so I could live in a sort of privileged lifestyle. Because, when I watched this, you know, I examined my own life and I kind of said to myself, “I would never get arrested, I would never get patted down for something, because of the way that I was brought up, because of the way I carry myself,” and that hurts because I feel like I am privileged in a sense. Whereas there are some guys who get looked at all the time.

Eric Wiegand: At the beginning of the documentary, they focus a lot on D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” and I thought that was really illuminating, how much of an impact it had on the country. It began the second arrival of the Ku Klux Klan in America, and it’s a film. The documentary kept going with that as far as talking about black representation in the media, and I thought that was signifying of Ava’s mission as a filmmaker herself. It hits at the heart of her work and her mission.

CS: As an artist myself, it’s my mission to create pieces of work that showcase who I am as an African-American male and the experiences I’ve gone through. And watching this movie…like Fred Hampton, the young guy, twenty-one years old, our age, who got killed, because he was trying to unite people together, by the police. I look at his story and all the stories they talk about and I say, “I’m going to use this in my own life, and pick up from where they left off.”

EW: Something that is extremely prevalent in the documentary is the question of how we define “us.” They were talking about politicians fighting to be the savior of the white population. I think that’s a huge issue. There’s a feeling in a large part of the population that “us” does not mean everyone in the United States.

CS: I feel like my grandfather and my father can speak firsthand on how these white politicians try to implement new ideas to help the general population, but it’s only helping their people. My grandfather works with low-income housing, he helps to get these black and hispanic families into decent housing, and he is the only person who will constantly be on their side. I know that I would love to have children one day, but I get scared of the fact that I will have to tell my children how to present themselves in a manner that doesn’t make them seem threatening, because I know my father did it with me. I never want to have that talk with my son, but I know that it will happen.

EW: Just watching a documentary that punches me in the gut is a reminder of the impact that this sort of thing can have, that art can have, and it really is an enormous inspiration to go forward and create content that is addressing these issues, forcing people’s eyes upon them like this film is.

CS: I also want to speak on the images in the credits, because it gets me every time, seeing these young faces, these young black faces, and seeing the joy that they have. But I can also see them not realizing the struggles they have ahead of them. Seeing these black families, in good times, you know. It’s good to show not only the bad sides, but also the good sides, the happy sides of African-American life.

Ava DuVernay’s documentary urges us to listen. It insists that we not turn our gaze away, as is so easy for some of us to do. It was a galvanizing experience, sharing the film with Christian. I urge you to watch “13th,” share it, discuss it. Our only course toward a better future is through dialogue, the sharing of experience. This film is one step.