Why Ava DuVernay’s Documentary “13th” Is the Most Important Film You’ll See This Year


(Photo Credit: 13th/ Netflix)

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subjected to their jurisdiction.”

This is the 13th Amendment that was passed by the Congress on January 31, 1865 and ratified by the states on December 6, 1865 in order to “abolish” slavery in the United States. Slavery technically ended over 150 years ago, but director, screenwriter, filmmaker, and film distributor Ava DuVernay wants you to take a deeper look at the amendment that supposedly terminated it.

The documentary named “The 13th” is a compelling look at how the modern-day prison labor system links to the days of slavery. The title refers to the 13th Amendment, which formally abolished slavery, but DuVernay focuses on the amendment’s exception clause, which states that slavery and involuntary servitude are illegal “except as a punishment for crime.”

The film premiered in selected theaters on September 30, 2016 and on Netflix on October 7, 2016, in which it offers a timely and emotional message framed by the upcoming political election and the Black Lives Matter movement. The film gives you a view 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 systematic racism.

It features commentary from a range of experts including former House Speaker Newt Gringrich, Civil Rights Activist Angela Davis, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb, Conservative Tax Reform Advocate Grover Norquist, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D- N.Y.), and former Obama Administration Official Van Jones.

Erie, PA (October 20, 2016) Erie County Prison (Photo Credit: Lauren Benzo)
Erie, PA (October 20, 2016) Erie County Prison (Photo Credit: Lauren Benzo)

The film argues that the United States effectively criminalized blackness through segregation and media representation. The excessive number of black men imprisoned in the United States for approximately minor crimes bears witness to this systemic and deep-seated racism. The film also mixes the interviews with the experts with massive archival footage and images from slavery to recent YouTube videos of police brutality, as well as hip hop verses and political speeches from the likes of President Obama, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan, Malcolm X, Ricard Nixon, and so many more.

There is a sense of importance when the film begins with the voice of President Obama speaking at an address to the NAACP’s 106th National Convention. He states, “The United States is home to five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.” That really gives you something to think about.

While watching this film, you start to view the connection between that staggering statistic and the post- Civil War era. There is a brief clause in the 13th Amendment that allows the south to rebuild its economy through prison labor and African Americans became incarcerated in large numbers, as stated earlier often for minor crimes. The author of “The New Jim Crow” named Michelle Alexander states in the film, “It was our nation’s first prison boom.”

The film also credits D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation” which glorified the KKK and became the blueprint for the representation of the black man as a murder, a rapist, and an animal. The documentary also follows the decades of lynching, racial violence, and African Americans being brutalized during the civil rights movement.

One single act of brutality is not this documentary’s focus. This film is based off names and circumstances of men, women, and even children that were murdered or imprisoned. People that have experienced incarnation or been victims of police brutality provide information on the effects of insidious dehumanization though media’s deceptions of African-Americans as criminals and sub-human.

Erie, PA (October 20, 2016) Erie County Prison (Photo Credit: Lauren Benzo)
Erie, PA (October 20, 2016) Erie County Prison (Photo Credit: Lauren Benzo)

As the documentary goes on, you see the number of prisoners in the U.S. go from 357,292 in 1970 to 2,306,200 in 2014. This gives the audience a chance to examine the “Law and Order” tactics that Republican nominee Donald Trump is so passionate about. The “Law and Order” rhetoric was produced by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in the late 1960’s. The fear of these two politicians were used to justify violence against Black Panther Party activists including Fred Hampton whom was assassinated by the FBI and Chicago police officers in 1969. This also included the racial differences in drug sentences during the Reaganomics and the crack epidemic, or as some would call the “War on Drugs” which only came with discriminative laws that over-policed, targeted, and criminalized black men to be misfits, animals, and criminals.

A commentator stated in the film, “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 film also sheds light on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative policy group that provides model legislation for state lawmakers, including bills that potentially benefited for-profit prisons. DuVernay said she learned the most during this section of the documentary.“The fact that many of our laws are not made by lawmakers…was startling to me,” DuVernay said.

It is safe to say that “13th” documents both the boom in America’s prison system and the profits corporations have earned because of it. It is a gripping and infuriating look at how human capital is abused and mistreated as shown in the tragic case of Kalief Browder, a 22-year-old man who committed suicide in June of 2015 after being imprisoned for three years at New York City’sRikers Island without being convicted of a crime. His mother Venida Browder recently passed away on October 14, 2016 from heart attack complications. He lawyer stated to the New York Daily News that she literally died from a broken heart.

“13th” is a film that is shocking to many. Not because of the things that have happened, yet it is shocking because people continue to allow these types of heinous actions to go on in this time and age. With everything that is going on in America with police brutality, lack of police accountability, and mass incarceration, this film gives people from all over the world a window into the realities of the “land of the free”. Even though the people of America can not change the past, that does not mean that they can not change its future.