A few weeks before the election, race relations, police brutality, and mass incarceration are on the forefront of many voters minds. Fittingly, Netflix just released the stirring documentary 13th by Ava DuVernay which delves into the issues through historical background and extensive expert interviews.
13th decides to tackle issues so huge that it somewhat struggles with what it wants the main focus of the film to be. The title and core thesis reflects a very important and often overlooked clause in the 13th amendment, the abolishment of slavery except as punishment for a crime. This loophole, as the film reflects has allowed for hundreds of years of legal slavery in the form of mass incarceration of mainly african-american men. DuVernay, deftly establishes the long history of systemic racism in law and politics that has led to the highest incarceration rates in the world. She uses numerous interviews with incarceration activists, historians, and other notables including, Angela Davis, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Michelle Alexander to discuss the history. Alexander, is the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, whose thesis that the US prison system is the modern equivalent of slavery is at the core of the film.
The film amazingly clocks in under two hours while managing to highlight the past 200 years of racism, laws, and rhetoric that has led up to the incarceration rates of 2016 and the current political climate. It even takes time to focus on the racist and inflammatory rhetoric both of the current political candidates have said over the past twenty five years. The pacing never feels too rushed and DuVernay tries to eliminate any major bias by incorporating a few apposing viewpoints and some whose minds have changed as policies have evolved.
Most interesting is hearing the ALEC spokesman try and defend the years of racist policies they’ve been able to push into law. DuVernay doesn’t try to make the film about contrasting views, her argument is clear enough just by laying out the history and increase in the prison system over the last twenty years. While highlighting the specific lawmakers, like Clinton and Bush whose policies nearly doubled the prison population.
The film ends with a slight examination into how new technology has brought national attention to police brutality. Now, with the help of filming devices more non people of color are witnessing and becoming aware of the thoroughly embedded societal inequality, which will hopefully inspire positive change in the coming years. The film ends while intercutting montages of Trump rallies with those of anti-segregationists in the 1960’s. Showing that in many ways, we still have far to go.
13th is available to stream on Netflix with subscription