Documentaries can be a useful tool for social change. They start a debate on a troubling topic, and raise awareness of an often unnoticed issue, whilst also providing lucid insight. When one demands reform, a riveting documentary can prove an invaluable megaphone. No one documentary is the same, though. Even if two documentaries are about the same social issue, Free Meek and 13th look at the racist criminal justice system in America for example, both can use different techniques.
On the surface, Free Meek and 13th both look at the racism inherent in the criminal justice system in America in similar ways. Both effectively use hip hop songs to transition between different sections, which provides insight into the emotional impact of police brutality and racism in the judicial system. The songs reiterate the facts and revelations revealed in the documentary, but add raw, emotional weight to these facts. Both documentaries also use visual text to state clear, startling facts and statistics, allowing them to make a big impression on the viewer and become easier to remember. Further, both have very invocative titles. Free Meek echoes famous chants like “free Huey” from the 1960s, whilst also serving as an imperative, implying Meek Mill is still not free, even though he is out of prison. 13th suggests that the problems in the documentary stem from that very amendment all those decades ago, whilst also invoking the idea of unlucky number 13. The two documentaries seem to employ very similar techniques to rally the calls for social change.
The main difference between the two documentaries is one of perspective. Free Meek looks at the need for criminal justice reform through the life of the Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill. Chronologically chronicling his life from young rapper taking part in rap battles to megastar in the company of Jay Z (executive producer for the documentary), Rick Ross and Nicki Minaj, the documentary represents the criminal justice system as a hindrance on his career. At 19, Meek was arrested for carrying an unlicensed firearm, but he was falsely accused of 18 other crimes by his arresting officer. He did a short amount of prison time, but was given ten years probation. Meek’s probation period is still not over. The terms of his probation have affected everything from his live tours, to when he can and cannot release music, as well as his relationship with his family. Free Meek incites anger and a sense of injustice at the criminal justice through a very personal story, framing it as a hindrance on a blossoming artist.
If Free Meek is a close up of this issue, then 13th is an establishing shot. DuVernay’s 2016 film uses eloquent interviews with an eclectic and impressive range of experts offering many different angles, whether social, political, economic, or historical, on the issue. Whilst Free Meek does use experts, most of the interviews are with people close to Meek, and are used to emphasise the emotional impact of his unjust convictions. 13th uses well-sourced archive material to show that this is an issue affecting many African-Americans; Free Meek uses reconstructions of the stories Meek has to tell. Unfortunately, the reconstructions are not as impactful as the truly uncomfortable viewing provided by the archive material. It provides a brutal, more lucid look at similar examples of police mistreatment. DuVernay’s film has a much wider scope too. It starts with the end of the US Civil War and the abolition of slavery, and chronicles the history of US race relations from this point, looking at the links between segregation, the war on drugs and the rise of mass incarceration.
The wider perspective allows for the more effective documentary. Whilst Free Meek does make attempts to suggest Meek’s story is part of a wider systemic problem, for many interviewees make this point, it takes such a close up look of his story that it can be easy to forget other people are being affected by these issues too. For example, the documentary ends with a piece of visual text stating that Meek Mill has finally been granted a new trial with a new judge, something he has been struggling to get throughout the second half of the mini-series. It frames this change of judge as a triumph, which it is, but only for Meek. It does not draw attention to the fact Judge Brinkley, whom the documentary suggests is highly corrupt, has not lost her job and will be able to judge other cases. It is just relieved she is no longer on Meek’s case. The ending of the documentary mini-series also fails to draw attention to the fact Judge Brinkley is part of a much wider problem- will changing the judge actually make that much of a difference if the system itself remains unreformed? The time spent talking about irrelevant details like Meek’s arguments with Drake and his relationship with Nicki Minaj could have been spent situating Meek’s situation within a much wider context. It is effective at getting you to sympathise with Meek. By the end, you’ll be chanting “free Meek” too. However, to truly grasp the horrifying injustice of the criminal justice system, 13th is much better equipped to provide that insight.
One very important issue has been raised by these two documentaries. The film and the mini-series use two very different perspectives. Free Meek is much more personal and focused on the life of one man. 13th looks at the issue of racism in the justice system as a product of historic and social race relations in America. Whilst the latter is much more effective at driving home the magnitude of the issue, both have a substantial impact, moving the audience with very powerful, emotional stories. They both raise awareness of a very important, which, sadly, remains an unresolved one.