13th

Back in March I mentioned the encounter my family had two years ago, one in which a complete stranger joked that my then three-year-old son would be chased by the cops one day. It is a moment that I think about often; knowing that it will not be the last time that my son is viewed as a potential criminal simply based on the colour of his skin. While I would love to believe the pendulum will swing in a direction where this is not the case, the sad fact of the matter is that there is an ingrained mentality that still associates crime with race.

It is this systemic belief, and the history that fuels it, that plays an important role in Ava DuVernay’s 13th. The documentary explores the American prison system and the ways the in which an exception clause in the 13th Amendment of the Constitution has helped to perpetuate long-standing racial inequalities. DuVernay bravely dissects America’s complex and disingenuous past from slavery, to the Jim Crow laws, through the turbulent civil rights movement, all the way to the present day shootings of African-American men and women by police officers. Through all of this she effectively argues that years of unjust government legislations have had a direct correlation on the increased number of African-Americans in the penal system.

What makes 13th such a powerful film is not simply the history of racial injustice, but the ways in which politicians from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton have used the loophole in the 13th Amendment to misrepresent the war on drugs. Winning elections by instilling fear of those bringing drugs and crime into communities, coupled with uneven representation of non-whites as criminal, a tactic that the likes of Donald Trump capitalizes on today, they have found new ways to perpetuate the same myths of African-Americans being the ultimate danger that D.W. Griffith’s controversial film The Birth of a Nation portrayed so many years earlier.

One of the most disturbing aspects of DuVernay’s film is just how many corporations and organizations have benefited from the over two million individuals incarcerated. Through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the conservative lobbying group made up of corporate representatives and politicians, many pre-written bills, including Bill Clinton’s infamous and damaging three strikes laws, have been enacted not to curb crime, but rather to gain financially from it.

Leaning heavily on scholars and activists, DuVernay skillfully creates a vital piece of cinema that is both eye-opening and thought-provoking. It is an effective conversation starter for a discussion that we as a society have been putting off for far too long. One of the lasting images in the film is not of those who have been jailed, beaten or killed, but rather the joyous black faces in the closing credits. Pictures of those who are trying their best to live their life like regular Americans, despite a system that seems to think they are anything but.

9 Comments

  1. Great review. We watched 13th last night and I have been struggling with writing my own review all morning. This documentary is so packed full of injustice that was hard to separate out exactly where to begin. It’s overwhelming, and for that reason alone it’s a must see.

    1. There is indeed so much to process. I think this film and O.J.: Made in America are two documentaries that have done a wonderful job of capturing the racial complexities of today in an informative and engaging way.

  2. We watched 13th on Saturday night, and I was really surprised by the segments on ALEC. It cemented the point that the problem isn’t just political, it’s institutional across the business world too. This was also such a moving film. The montage of all the police shootings near the end was powerful and so distressing.

    Watching the debate last night, I couldn’t help but notice the way that Trump framed so much in terms of “law and order” in a similar way to what we saw in 13th from Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton to a certain extent. It’s such a timely film, and I’m glad that it’s on Netflix. A lot more people will see it in this way, and people need to see it.

    1. I agree that Netflix will give the film are far broader reach than had it been simply given a limited theatrical run. The ALEC stuff was jaw-dropping, I also found the ways the film tied in the current presidential election to be fascinating as well.

  3. I don’t have Netflix nor do I use it but I really want to see this. I heard about this doc last month and the subject matter makes it interesting as it shows the idea that the U.S. doesn’t stand for liberty and justice for all after all. There’s a lot of bullshit out there.

    1. Netflix has really stepped their came in terms of being a serious player in the film distribution sphere. It is nice to see them support documentaries like this which aim to question the status quo and educate at the same time.

  4. Based upon the Netflix synopsis alone, I have this in my queue. There are so many injustices against blacks and Mexicans and minorities that I have no hope for the white people of the future who will soon become the minority. You reap what you sow. But the politicians and businessmen don’t seem too concerned. Anything to get elected and re-elected. Its a sorry state!

  5. I started out thinking – what do COMPANIES have to gain? – and was so disturbed to find out how very much it adds up to.

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