In front of a full auditorium of Honors students, Madison Hanks, psychology major and president of the Black Student Union, asked the audience after they had finished watching 13th, if they thought that the documentary was biased.
Their answers ranged from saying the documentary was an unfair portrayal of police officers, to others calling it an unfortunate reality.
An open dialogue about the documentary, which focuses on the mass incarceration of people of color and criticizes the U.S. justice system, was organized by the English Honors Department and members of the BSU. The vice president of BSU, Hanks, and BSU member Abdul Kalumbi, led the discussion in the Classroom Building Feb 27.
Kalumbi, an entrepreneurship major, said people may feel that the film is biased because of the explicit way the film depicts police brutality.
“When something is intense like that, people automatically want to dismiss it and say it’s biased. They use that word to suggest that the message was disingenuous; it wasn’t as credible,” he said.
In the wake of a tense political climate from the presidential election, the issue of encountering difference became the focus for this semester’s Honors Colloquium class according to Kate McPherson, director of the Honors Program and professor of English. She said that her job as an educator is to help students grapple with difficult issues through introspection and empathy.
Students discussed the 1994 Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act passed by Bill Clinton and if that affected the mass incarceration of people of color.
McPherson said the film brings up mandatory sentencing from Clinton’s bill, which was 100 times stiffer on charges for crack cocaine than for powdered cocaine. This resulted in higher incarceration rates among low-income households and communities of color.
According to the film, the U.S. makes up five percent of the population of the world, yet holds 25 percent of the world’s prison population.
The 2016 documentary depicts the periods after the American Civil War ended in 1865 and how racial inequality, police brutality, Jim Crow laws and the war on drugs has kept people of color enslaved to the criminal system.
“I feel like a documentary’s responsibility is to educate and not necessarily to sway,” said Tyler Ehninger, a biotechnology major. He said that the film presented compelling facts, but that there was a lack of representation of opposing views. “I would have liked to see police officers interviewed who have been through these experiences, just to humanize them, instead of having them do these brutal things and not ask them why and talk to them,” Ehninger said.
Kamryn Wilson, a special education major, thought that the segments which showed police brutality were biased and the increasing numbers for mass incarceration were blown out of proportion. Wilson comes from a family of police officers and said that the film didn’t portray officers in a more complex light. “I think that if people really step back and look at all the good that the policemen do for us, I think there would be a better understanding between both parties,” she said.
Spencer Ostler, a philosophy major, said that the film was clearly a promotion of the Black Lives Matter movement and that even though the film had bias, the events shown in the film were historically accurate. He also said that the film may been seen as anti-government, as it portrays the Republican and Democratic Party in a negative way.