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.