Screening The 13th: Questions to ask yourself #SJYALit
I recently heard about how “video visits” were growing in popularity with prisons. As the details unfolded, my initial impression of interest (“Oh that’s nice – families could maybe see their incarcerated loved ones more often or from greater distances.”) turned to revulsion. The strategy is being used largely by local jails as a way to reduce the need for security staff to supervise visits. Families still have to travel the same distance but now can’t even be in the same room as their loved one. It seems so dehumanizing to people on both sides of the bars.
After watching Ava DuVernay’s new documentary, The 13th, now streaming on Netflix, I can only believe that “dehumanizing” was by design. I am encouraging the TLT readership to make viewing The 13th a priority by the end of 2016. It’s essential viewing for our times. Another reason to shuffle this to the top of your queue: The other day I spotted this tweet in response to a request for permission to screen the movie:
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) November 29, 2016
You guys get what a big deal this is, right? Offering free public screenings of new films by award winning directors like DuVernay is not something that happens every day. Do you have a film discussion group at your library or another way to, as the director encourages, “show + share”?
Should you incorporate this into your teen programming? Let’s talk about this.
What’s it about?
From IMDB: An in-depth look at the prison system in the United States and how it reveals the nation’s history of racial inequality.
This is a comprehensive, statistic and history packed documentary about the evolution of the prison system since the 13th Amendment’s abolition of slavery and how federal and local policies and institutionalized racism work to feed Black Americans into the system at a much higher demographic rate than is represented in society at large. It is not light viewing. It’s not pleasant, it’s not easy, it’s not fun. It’s not supposed to be. This is a challenging film on many fronts.
A TV-MA rating*?
Yep. Sure is. As we all know, teens are living lives every day that people say they shouldn’t be allowed to read about or watch. This is a powerful movie with difficult content. But it’s not the language–as in the prevalence of the n-word–or nudity–in the form of brief prison security camera footage from Kalif Browder’s three years at Riker’s Island–that is the most difficult. It’s the 911 calls and cell phone videos that captured the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner that are played as the film, step by crushingly methodical step, takes the viewer decade by decade through the politics and consequences that lead directly to those heartbreaking, devastating moments.
Yes, this is a film for mature audiences in the most literal sense of the word. It is sobering and requires maturity. It’s also a good time to think about who gets to have the privilege being considered too immature to remain unaware of the realities of the film.
Questions to ask yourself
This is not a simple film for screening or discussion. Expect big feelings. Expect challenging reactions. Expect a lot of questions. Most importantly, expect to hold a conversation after the film. I feel that screening this–especially with a teen audience–and not hosting a discussion afterwards would be a disservice to the viewers and to the message of the film. Before you embark on a screening, consider the following:
- Have you watched the film yourself at least twice? Watch it once, immersing yourself in the narrative. Then watch it again with an eye to detail and quotes. Take notes. Mark timestamps of specific elements that you want to emphasize in conversation so you can be sure you got them right.
- Have you read/listened up on the surrounding issues? If this is your first introduction to the topic, don’t let it be your last. See the suggested titles at the end of this post for some book suggestions. Other jumping off points:
- Who will come to the event? Think about the teens in your community: do you know who’s going to show up? Do you have a hunch? Who will be in the room and what experiences and emotions will they bring to the conversation? Who will you invite? What kind of balance will you seek between demographics like age, race, or gender? What ages will be welcome and how will your library or school address the rating, keeping in mind that TV ratings are voluntarily assigned by networks and producers are and not legally binding? What situations has your community or your teen patron base at large been involved in that relate to the subjects of the movie that they will bring with them to the viewing?
- How heavily moderated will the conversation be? Will you steer the discussion to specific points? Will you allow or encourage discussion of specific politicians? Specific policies? Specific incidents? Or will you strive to keep the conversation more general? What is your plan for maintaining courteous discourse between the participants? What will your ground-rules be?
- Are you equipped to handle the political and emotional complexity of conversation? It’s ok if you’re not the right person to lead the conversation. Who else in the community could you call on? Are there teachers, community leaders, local clergy, or organizers who the library could partner to facilitate a productive discussion?
- How will you answer the inevitable question, “So how do we fix it?” This film doesn’t end with a tidy answer or any direct suggestions for ways to remedy the enmeshment of social, economic, and political issues that result in the imprisonment problem. I feel that it’s important to offer options and solutions to teens. My suggestion: share with your teens DuVernay’s own words from an interview last month with The Atlantic and invite them to respond with their own ideas:
I believe in fortification and I believe that at this time, we should be fortifying ourselves through knowledge, through self-care, through community. All of these speak through art. It’s really about rallying around this moment and taking in a totality of what it is, and making it internal in whatever way that means to you. If you know all this stuff, great. Pass it on. If you don’t know it, know it. You need to know it. Because at this point, after you see 13th, silence in this case is consent. You know all of this. You’re a forward-thinking person, you care about it. You can’t just walk out into the night after you see the movie or put down your iPad after you see it on Netflix and do nothing about it.
I’m not saying you have to join a march. I’m not saying you have to push for legislation. I’m saying what this film talks about is the very way that we deal with each other in the everyday. It’s about our relationship to each other as it deals with race. So there’s a lot there to be done. I’m stepping out of the conversation as it relates to this film. I’m doing two weekends talking to people and kind of giving birth to it and putting it out into the world. And then I’m going away because it’s not mine anymore. This is out in the world. I don’t want my voice clouding the conversation. I want people to be having their own conversation about it. That’s my great hope.
Show + share, indeed.
All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
Rashad Butler is a quiet, artistic teen who hates ROTC but dutifully attends because father insists “there’s no better opportunity for a black boy in this country than to join the army.” He heads to Jerry’s corner store on a Friday night to buy chips, and ends up the victim of unwarranted arrest and police brutality: an event his white schoolmate Quinn Collins witnesses in terrified disbelief. Quinn is even more shocked because the cop is Paul Galluzzo, older brother of his best friend and Quinn’s mentor since his father died in Afghanistan. As events unfold, both boys are forced to confront the knowledge that racism in America has not disappeared and that change will not come unless they step forward. Reynolds and Kiely’s collaborative effort deftly explores the aftermath of police brutality, addressing the fear, confusion, and anger that affects entire communities. Diverse perspectives are presented in a manner that feels organic to the narrative, further emphasizing the tension created when privilege and racism cannot be ignored. Timely and powerful, this novel promises to have an impact long after the pages stop turning. (SLJ Review by Ashley Turner)
Cy in Chains by David L. Dudley
Cy Williams, thirteen, has always known that he and the other black folks on Strong’s plantation have to obey white men, no question. Sure, he’s free, as black people have been since his grandfather’s day, but in rural Georgia, that means they’re free to be whipped, abused, even killed. Almost four years later, Cy yearns for that freedom, such as it was. Now he’s a chain gang laborer, forced to do backbreaking work, penned in and shackled like an animal, brutalized, beaten, and humiliated by the boss of the camp and his hired overseers. For Cy and the boys he’s chained to, there’s no way out, no way back.
And then hope begins to grow in him, along with strength and courage he didn’t know he had. Cy is sure that a chance at freedom is worth any risk, any sacrifice. This powerful, moving story opens a window on a painful chapter in the history of race relations. (Publisher description)
Rikers High by Paul Volponi
Martin was sitting on the front stoop of his apartment building minding his own business when he was arrested for something he didn’t even mean to do. Five months later, he’s still locked up on Rikers Island, in a New York City jail. Just when it seems things couldn’t get much worse, Martin is caught between two warring prisoners, and his face is slashed. Now he’ll be forever marked with a prison scar. One good thing comes from the attack: Martin is transferred to a different part of Rikers where inmates are required to attend high school. If Martin opens up to a teacher who really seems to care, perhaps he’ll learn a lesson more valuable than any taught in class. An award-winning author, Paul Volponi is uniquely qualified to tell Martin’s story because he taught on Rikers Island for six years. He originally wrote Rikers for an adult audience. The book has been revised for young adults and is being republished as Rikers High. (Publisher’s Description)
X by Ilyasha Shabazz with Kekla Magoon
Cowritten by Malcolm X’s daughter, this riveting and revealing novel follows the formative years of the man whose words and actions shook the world. X follows Malcolm from his childhood to his imprisonment for theft at age twenty, when he found the faith that would lead him to forge a new path and command a voice that still resonates today.
Malcolm Little’s parents have always told him that he can achieve anything, but from what he can tell, that’s a pack of lies—after all, his father’s been murdered, his mother’s been taken away, and his dreams of becoming a lawyer have gotten him laughed out of school. There’s no point in trying, he figures, and lured by the nightlife of Boston and New York, he escapes into a world of fancy suits, jazz, girls, and reefer. But Malcolm’s efforts to leave the past behind lead him into increasingly dangerous territory. Deep down, he knows that the freedom he’s found is only an illusion—and that he can’t run forever. (Publisher’s description)
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
In a series of essays, written as a letter to his son, Coates confronts the notion of race in America and how it has shaped American history, many times at the cost of black bodies and lives. Thoughtfully exploring personal and historical events, from his time at Howard University to the Civil War, the author poignantly asks and attempts to answer difficult questions that plague modern society. In this short memoir, the “Atlantic” writer explains that the tragic examples of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and those killed in South Carolina are the results of a systematically constructed and maintained assault to black people–a structure that includes slavery, mass incarceration, and police brutality as part of its foundation. (Publisher’s description)
True Notebooks by Mark Salzman
Wanting to add life to a cardboard juvenile delinquent character in the novel he was trying to finish, Salzman (Iron & Silk; Lying Awake) visited a juvie lockup for high-risk offenders where his friend taught a writing class. Despite entering the facility wishing “we could tilt L.A. County and shake it until everybody with a shaved head and tattoos falls into the ocean,” Salzman ended up teaching a class himself. The remarkable results are detailed in this wonderful book. Salzman found students who took writing more seriously than the college kids he’d taught. Both selections from the boys’ writing and Salzman’s taut storytelling give us multidimensional images of teenagers thrown into a justice system concerned only with punishment. Early in the book, a friend of Salzman’s complains that there are no good books about juvenile delinquents. Well, there’s one now–one that examines a broken system with grace, wit, and gripping storytelling. (Booklist review, John Green)
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
In this incisive critique, former litigator-turned-legal-scholar Michelle Alexander provocatively argues that we have not ended racial caste in America: we have simply redesigned it. Alexander shows that, by targeting black men and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of color blindness. The New Jim Crowchallenges the civil rights community — and all of us – -to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America. (Publisher’s description)
Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black American from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon
A Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the “Age of Neoslavery,” the American period following the Emancipation Proclamation in which convicts, mostly black men, were “leased” through forced labor camps operated by state and federal governments.
Using a vast record of original documents and personal narratives, Douglas A. Blackmon unearths the lost stories of slaves and their descendants who journeyed into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation and then back into the shadow of involuntary servitude shortly thereafter. By turns moving, sobering, and shocking, this unprecedented account reveals the stories of those who fought unsuccessfully against the re-emergence of human labor trafficking, the companies that profited most from neoslavery, and the insidious legacy of racism that reverberates today. (Publisher’s description)
*Again, I’d like to remind everyone that TV ratings are voluntarily assigned and overseen by a panel made up no small part by corporate representatives. TV ratings are not laws. (For more on the problems in the movie rating industry, see the 2006 This Film Is Not Yet Rated.)
About Heather Booth
Heather Booth has worked in libraries since 2001 and am the author of Serving Teens Through Reader’s Advisory (ALA Editions, 2007) and the editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Servcies along with Karen Jensen.
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