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Review: ’13th’ documentary deftly tackles U.S. racial past, present, future

Ava DuVernay

A brief apology and disclaimer before I begin this article: I was assigned to cover the #GETWOKE presentation and discussion of Ava Duvernay’s highly acclaimed documentary 13th on Friday. Instead I went to the Chicago protest against Trump’s inauguration, and in doing so missed the event. I’m very sorry that I missed it and have little doubt that there was an excellent discussion following the film.The purpose of this article then, is to review 13th itself, available to stream on Netflix for all those who couldn’t make it to the talk, but who are interested in its subject matter (all of us should all be).

Duvernay’s 2016 documentary, 13th, has recently generated a lot of buzz, and rightfully so. Best known for her MLK biopic Selma, Duverney has turned her focus towards the prison industrial complex, in particular its effect on African-Americans and its role as yet another form of social and political subjugation for people of color. Duvernay wisely takes her time in giving the viewer the historical context necessary for the presentation of the film’s primary thesis: that though the 13th amendment ostensibly abolished slavery, the United States has consistently abused a loophole within the amendment that has kept many Black citizens in a state of de facto enslavement.

Section 1 of the 13th Amendment reads “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” It is, the documentary convincingly argues, the portion which I’ve italicized that has been regularly exploited in order to continue profiting off of the subjugation of Black people.

This loophole was first taken advantage of directly after the Civil War, when the US economy was reeling following the loss of its primary source of economic profit, slavery. Newly freed African-Americans were rounded up in huge numbers for minor infractions such as loitering, and used once again as a source of free labour.  

Duvernay employs an impressive group of scholars, activists, pundits, and politicians to examine the cultural and political creation of animalistic black criminality as a stereotype that continues to be abused and exploited by the business and political elite to this day. Angela Davis, Van Jones, and Michelle Alexander are just a few of the talking heads that guide the viewer through 13th, providing easy to follow but bitter to swallow commentary that consistently challenges us to more thoroughly confront our country’s racial past, present, and future.

Henry Louis Gates

Perhaps the real star of the film is the numbers, the depressing, enraging and mindboggling statistics that emerge again and again throughout the documentary: “One in three young black males is expected to go to jail or prison within their lifetime,” as opposed to one in seventeen white males. “Black men account for roughly 6.5% of the U.S. population [and] they make up 40.2% of the prison population.” “The United Sttes is home to 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners.”

These numbers of course do not represent a new problem but one that is centuries old. As Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness points out succinctly in the documentary, “throughout American history, African-Americans have repeatedly been controlled through systems of racial and social control that appear to die but then are reborn in new forms tailored to the needs and constraints of the time.” These forms have included convict leasing, the Jim Crow system, and now “a system of mass-incarceration that once again strips millions of poor people, overwhelmingly poor people of color, of the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights movement.”

The film also takes a thorough look at the current Black Lives Matter movement, situating its goals and existence in a broader historical context that many U.S. citizens seem to be unaware of or unmoved by. As History professor Kevin Gannon points out “There has never been a period in our history where the law and order branch of the state has not operated against the freedoms, the liberties, the options, the choices that have been available for the black community.”

It’s Duvernay’s willingness to leave almost no stone unturned in her examination of continued racial inequality that truly sets 13th apart. A less skilled filmmaker might have tangled their film up in attempting to tie all the historic, cultural, and political threads together, but Duvernay has managed to create a well polished, compelling and disquieting knot worthy of a boy scout merit badge. This review lacks the room to dwell on all the subject matter touched on by the film — the effect of Birth of a Nation on the country’s psyche, the War on Drugs, and the American Legislative Exchange Council to name just a few — but each receives careful consideration. You’ll have trouble naming a more succinct, thought-provoking, and artistically conveyed analysis of our troubled and exploitative racial past and present.

A final thought: Duvernay’s film was released in October 2016, one month after the start of what’s been named the largest prison strike in US history, an event which was largely ignored and unreported on. As Alice Speri wrote in The Intercept, “while information on prisons is notoriously difficult to obtain, a potentially larger problem for the striking prisoners is the seemingly limited interest in their plight, which remains confined to a few activists, family members, and formerly incarcerated people, even at a time when criminal justice issues and prison reform are high on the agenda of social justice advocates and politicians alike.” 13th is an important tool for engaging and recontextualizing that absent interest.

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