“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime…shall exist within the United States.” – The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Thus begins Ava DuVernay’s searing documentary The 13th. The film views the trajectory of the United States’ prison-system, the mass incarceration of African-American men, and the rising tide of police brutality, both past and present, through the lens of systemic racism.
The 13th draws a disturbingly clear parallel between the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, and the rise of mass incarceration of African-American citizens, primarily men. The documentary argues that the United States effectively criminalized blackness through segregation and media representation. The inordinate number of black men imprisoned in the United States for relatively minor crimes bears witness to this systemic and deep-seated racism, related all too clearly with the “business” of imprisonment, from the Reconstruction era right to this very day.
DuVernay utilizes all the stops of the typical documentary, featuring talking head interviews with activists, university professors, politicians, and former inmates. She mixes these interviews with extensive archival footage and images from slavery through to contemporary YouTube videos of police violence (many of which will be all-too-recognizable), as well as rap songs and political speeches.
She does not make any single act of brutality her focus though, but rather gives the names and circumstances of men, women, and even children murdered or imprisoned. Those who have experienced incarceration, or been victims of police brutality, provide further windows into the effects of insidious dehumanization through media depictions of African-Americans as criminal and sub-human.
No one escapes DuVernay’s unflinching gaze. From the effects of Reconstruction and the criminalization of blacks, the film proceeds to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, which helped to re-galvanize the KKK, and became the blueprint for the representation of the black man as a murderer, a rapist, and an animal. Even more damning is the relationship The 13th draws between the War on Drugs – a term originally coined by the Nixon Administration and grown into an all-out campaign in the Reagan years – and increased incarceration of black men.
As one commentator explains, the penalty for possession of crack cocaine, popular in impoverished and largely black communities, was far harsher than the penalty for possession of powdered cocaine, an expensive drug, popular in wealthy and often white communities. The creation of this kind of law that targets blacks without appearing to penalize them because they are black is symptomatic of the broader problem.
The 13th is exceptionally well researched and even-handed, allowing space for conservative or dissenting voices within its narrative. While it certainly has a perspective, the film does not force that perspective on the viewer without clear evidence. The viewer is not manipulated into the position of the filmmaker through appeals solely to emotion or political viewpoint (though emotion naturally plays a large role in the experience of the film). Like the finest documentarians, DuVernay crafts a convincing thesis and takes us through her evidence, step by step, drawing clear conclusions throughout. When confronted with the murder of Emmett Till, of Trayvon Marin, and of Eric Garner, and political speeches that explicitly seek to represent African-Americans as criminals, it is impossible not to give credence to what DuVernay is saying. This is not simply about isolated incidents of police violence, or about the business of running prisons for profit – this is about the systematic dehumanization of an entire race of people.
But The 13th is not a story without hope. DuVernay takes pains to allow some light – and even some humor – to come into her narrative. As she exposes parallels between the rhetoric of the KKK and that of Donald Trump at his rallies, she attempts to galvanize her audience into action. This is something that can be changed, but it cannot be left to the politicians to do it. Activism, the willingness to see the system for what it is, and the progress that we can all make towards a future where we can be united by our common humanity, is the hope of The 13th.
The 13th is a seminal film that, as DuVernay puts it, will remain evergreen. What is shocking about The 13th is not that these things have happened, but that we continue to allow them to happen, turning a blind eye to a system that forces black people back into chains. At this pivotal moment in history, it gives us a window into the realities of our nation. We cannot change the past of the United States, but we can change its future.
A searing and pivotal documentary about the prison-industrial complex, Ava DuVernay's The 13th is a truly frightening film that galvanizes its viewers to action.