One of the most searing scenes in Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary “13th” plays Donald Trump’s voice over images of brutal attacks on African Americans during the civil rights movement.
DuVernay plays audio clips of Trump addressing protesters, many of whom have been black, at his campaign rallies, which have been notoriously marked by violence. “Knock the crap out of him, would you? Seriously, get him out of here,” Trump says in one clip as DuVernay plays a sequence she refers to as “Dignified Man” — a black man picks up his hat as a mob of racist white men push him violently across a street.
“13th,” which premiered on the streaming network and opened in select theaters Friday, links mass incarceration to years of racial discrimination that DuVernay traces from the end of slavery to decades of Jim Crow laws and violence against African Americans. The timely documentary incorporates the hyper-visible Black Lives Matter movement and comes just months after the Justice Department said it will end the use of private prisons.
It also lands a month before a presidential election that has been characterized by contentious rhetoric about race, and “13th” ties both Trump and Hillary Clinton to issues related to mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system. In an interview with The Washington Post, DuVernay said she hopes the documentary helps people hold the candidates accountable for their views.
“Our candidates are calling each other names on Twitter, but there’s been a lot less substantive conversation about issues of this kind,” DuVernay said.
Clinton appears in footage of her controversial 1996 remarks about superpredators, which she made while supporting then-President Bill Clinton’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. “They are not just gangs of kids anymore,” Clinton says in the clip. “They are often the kinds of kids that are called superpredators.”
Bill Clinton acknowledged in an address to the NAACP last year that the 1994 bill sent minor offenders to prison “for way too long.” Hillary Clinton has been criticized for her support for the bill, which created longer mandatory minimum sentences and has been blamed for sending a disproportionate number of African Americans and Latinos to prison, often for nonviolent offenses. Her former rival Sen. Bernie Sanders raised questions about the long-term effects of the bill, but ultimately voted in favor of it. In “13th,” experts acknowledge that even prominent African American lawmakers supported the bill at the time, and that it followed years of law-and-order policies popularized by the Nixon and Reagan administrations.
“We’d consistently had ‘squishy soft liberal won’t protect you and tough conservative will protect you.’ And [Republicans] won that fight every time,” former House speaker Newt Gingrich says candidly in “13th.” “And by the late ’80s, early ’90s, people like Bill Clinton had begun to figure out they had to be able to match us.”
“13th” also explores the racial disparities in sentencing during the crack epidemic, and it’s during this section that Gingrich makes a statement that might cause viewers to do a double take. “We absolutely should have treated crack and cocaine as the same thing,” the prominent conservative and Trump adviser says. “I think it was an enormous burden on the black community, but it also fundamentally violated a sense of core fairness.”
Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) acknowledges his own role in tougher sentencing laws that sent more African Americans to prison. “It may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it sure didn’t work out as being effective.”
Trump, who has used the term “law and order” throughout his campaign, is also shown speaking at a news conference about the five black and Latino teenagers who were accused of a brutal rape and assault in what became known as the Central Park jogger case. “You better believe that I hate the people that took this girl and raped her brutally,” Trump says in the footage. Trump took out a full-page ad in the New York Daily News urging the death penalty for the teens, who spent between seven years and 13 years in prison before DNA evidence (and the confession of convicted rapist Matias Reyes) exonerated them in 2002.
Just this week, Trump gave a statement to CNN’s Miguel Marquez that suggests he believes the five men are guilty. “They admitted they were guilty,” Trump said. “The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that the case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous.”
DuVernay has been a less-than-enthusiastic Clinton supporter, and a harsh critic of Trump. She said at a news conference following the documentary’s premiere at the New York Film Festival, “I think it’s vital to have him in the film, because he’s taking this country to a place that is going to be long studied, considered for a long time. It’s going to have repercussions past this moment regardless of whether he’s the president or not. … And so we need to remember this moment just like we look at the Bush/Dukakis race earlier [in the documentary]. It gives us context to this moment that we’re in, looking at it through a lens of race and culture.”
Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly referred to Rep. Charles B. Rangel as a senator. This version has also been updated to reflect that Bernie Sanders voted in favor of the 1994 crime bill despite raising questions about some of its provisions.