Image Credit: Netflix
Slavery is outlawed, ‘except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted’. This is the catch in the definition of America’s 13th Amendment, and is the focus of Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary film and it is this loophole that has given birth to mass incarceration in the US. In 13th, DuVernay delves deeply into the issues and corruption surrounding this. Regardless of the fact that we don’t live in America, her documentary demands everyone to take notice through its unapologetic delivery of fact. DuVernay may be focussing her lense on the US, but this systemic oppression is present here in the UK too. Her documentary demands that we understand and educate ourselves on what systemic racism over so many years has led to today.
13th begins with the words of Barack Obama, explaining that the US is home to 5% of the world’s population yet 25% of the world’s prisoners. He is explaining what author Michelle Alexander describes as the ‘New Jim Crow’. This being a term which began with Republican politicians introducing a war against drugs, which has since grown into a mass incarceration particularly of young black men in America. Mass incarceration is the latest form of oppression ripping through America, tearing apart families and thus creating a form of modern slavery due to the nature of the prison system.
DuVernay, through video footage, infographic videos, and interviews with activists and academics, gives us a timeline of racial injustice in the US beginning with the abolition of slavery and culminating in the current emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. In terms of where the film leads us, DuVernay states in an interview with The Atlantic, “The final act of our picture is all about Black Lives Matter, not as some kind of dutiful, “Oh it’s the present moment, we should do something.” Every line, every frame of this film leads you to that place. Leads you to the now, leads you to the movement. The whole film is a virtual tour through racism.”
She brings together what has led to the continuation of systemic oppression and the criminalisation of black people and other minority ethnic groups. 13th discusses in great depth the privatisation of the prison industry and the hidden corruption in the US government, such as through the influence of the organisation ALEC (The American Legislative Exchange Council). DuVernay draws back the curtain on ALEC’s involvement in legislation in the US particularly surrounding their influence on the American prison system such as their alleged involvement in the “three strikes, you’re out” Bill. This bill essentially gives life imprisonment to anyone convicted of three violent or serious offences and is one of many bills revealed to be endorsed by ALEC in the documentary.
DuVernay has explained that growing up in Compton meant she already knew all of what she included in the film except for the information about ALEC. This, she attributes as being a significant reason as to why she felt this information needed to be collated into one documentary and told to others to enlighten them also on the depth of this corruption and over-criminalisation of minorities.
The film informs us of how at the time of release, 90% of people in incarceration had not yet received a trial. It is this ‘over-incarceration’ as stated in the documentary, that has ripped apart families and unfairly locked up thousands of innocent people across the country. Particularly black male youths. The film brings forth the emotional aspect of this separation not just through the hard hitting facts and powerful video examples, but through the music score that punctuates 13th with powerful lyrics from black performers of varying genres over time. The lyrics are frequently displayed on screen, adding powerful anecdotes and emotion into the information delivered to the audience.
13th pinpoints some major examples that accentuate this emotion and the powerful oppression that has ripped apart people’s families and livelihoods. The first being Kalief Browder who fought against his conviction of robbery, imprisoned for three years until he was proven innocent. However, the brutal treatment and subsequent trauma that he had experienced during these years by the prison industry ultimately led him to suicide at age just twenty two.
The Central Park Five are also given as an example of how unjust this system is. For anyone who does not know, the Central Park Five were a group of African-American and Latino youths who were wrongly convicted of raping a female jogger in Central Park in 1989.They each received sentences of five to fifteen years with the eldest defendant aged just sixteen serving thirteen years in an adult prison. DuVernay has since gone on to direct the Netflix Miniseries When They See Us about their story, which I am currently watching and would highly recommend.
DuVernay consistently presents us with the harsh realities of systemic racism and oppression in the US. She does not shy away from showing this brutality and instead forces you to watch. She forces you to listen and learn. 13th sheds light on an issue we should know more about. The criminalisation of minorities not just in America but also in the UK is a systemic problem that has gone unnoticed for decades. This systemic oppression must be challenged and 13th does exactly that throughout its entirety without shame.
13th is streaming now on Netflix and is free on YouTube courtesy of Netflix.