13th: America’s Come to Jesus
The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1865, reads, “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 subject to their jurisdiction.” The 2016 Netflix Original Documentary, 13th, focuses on the clause, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” arguing that the amendment, rather than ending slavery in America, only changed slavery’s form. Rather than enslaved labor, the film argues, America now has moved to criminalized labor.
13th premiered at the New York Film Festival in Sept. 2016. A week later, it was released on Netflix. The film was directed by Ava DuVernay, who also directed the 2014 film Selma. DuVernay has since won several awards for the 13th, and it has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. 13th has received acclaim based on the passionate, yet controlled portrayal of the information surrounding the facts of mass incarceration and criminalization of African-Americans, particularly black men.
One of the characterizing features of the film is its white graphics on black background which display information periodically throughout the hour and 40 minute runtime. The digital release poster invokes this motif, as a man dressed in prison stripes with ankle chains walks out of a black and white American flag. The stripes on the flag evoke prison bars, another image which appears repeatedly. 13th opens with these black and white images of a map of the globe. With a voiceover of Barack Obama stating the global statistics of prisoners, the graphics fade to focus on America. When Obama states that 25 percent of the world’s prisoners are in the U.S., black bars descend upon the image of the country. This image sets the tone of the film, opening the conversation to how “the land of the free” has so many people behind bars.
Like many documentaries, especially ones based in recent history, much of the film’s information is articulated through interviews with social justice activists (Gina Clayton, Angela Davis), academics (Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Deborah Small), and politicians (Newt Gingrich, Charles Rangel). Notably, one interviewee is also author and activist Michelle Alexander, whose book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness discusses many of these same issues, exploring them in more detail. These interviews are interspersed with more white statistics on the black background, including a quickly rising tally of the prison population as the film moves forward in time. Additionally, each time one of the interviewees uses the word “criminal,” DuVernay highlights it by cutting to the word imposed on the black background. In doing so, she emphasizes the power words have on reality. One of her main points is that by creating an environment wherein African-American males are viewed as criminals, people are less likely to view mass incarceration as a problem.
The interviewees give a brief history of race issues in America since the implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment, which includes the failed Reconstruction of the south, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement. Through all of these events, the DuVernay traces the continual criminalization of African-American men, which allows legislation to pass leading to mass incarceration. The interviewees point out that white hegemonic society has been so intentionally inundated with the association of black masculinity and criminality that everyone is susceptible to these misconceptions. The film ends in the present, explaining the purpose of the Black Lives Matter movement as working against not just police brutality, but the “larger, brutal system of racial and social control known as mass incarceration,” of which police brutality is a reflection.
The conclusion to take from 13th is that fixing the clear problem requires acknowledgement and conversation. As some of the interviewees note, the people who are affected are intimately aware of the problem, but the privileged often do not have to be. Only with education and forcing the conversation can these problems be resolved, and that is the goal of 13th. I believe this film should probably be required to be shown in American high schools, and should be watched by everyone past that, because, as Grand View University Professor Kevin Gannon says at the beginning of the film, we are all “products of history.” If we want to resolve issues caused by this history, it has to be acknowledged, deconstructed and understood.