Ava DuVernay’s “The 13th”: A review

A documentary about the link between slavery and our system of incarceration

The news is fraught with images of men and women of color embroiled at all levels of the criminal-justice system. Your middle or high school–aged child(ren) might have come to you with questions as to why they and/or people of color seem to be treated differently or more harshly. Your answers might range from avoidant (“Some people are not nice or good at their jobs”) to explicit (“People don’t like others because of their skin color,” or “Criminals get treated badly because they are criminals.”) Those answers are not satisfactory, and, to be honest, you might be unsure yourself, as many news reports are varied and wildly inexplicable.

For those reasons, Ava DuVernay’s The 13th is an important film to provide a possible context to what is presented. At times angering and heart-wrenching, the documentary, released on Netflix, presents the links between slavery and the U.S. criminal-justice system. That might seem like a dry topic, one that would have made you fall asleep in history class; instead, DuVernay creates a compelling narrative to stir your consciousness by illuminating the economic link between the abolishment of slavery and the endemic of mass incarceration.

Ratified in 1865, after the American Civil War, to abolish slavery and indentured servitude, the 13th amendment states: “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.” Note the clause, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”: this is where DuVernay begins uncovering her thesis. Through interviewing a set of well-known scholars, politicians, and activists—including Michelle Alexander, whose book The New Jim Crow (The New Press, 2012) dissects this very topic; Angela Davis; Newt Gingrich (who is surprisingly candid); and others—DuVernay takes us on an informative journey.

The film begins during the age of Reconstruction, when whites in the South no longer had the underpinning of slavery to support their economy. Southern blacks began to be sanctioned with small crimes, such as loitering or homelessness. If they could not afford to pay the fine, which many could not, they were sentenced to jail. Moving through the brutality of the Jim Crow era, DuVernay shows haunting news and movie footage, including Emmitt Till’s murder and Klu Klux Klan hangings, to share the familiarly painful story of how black people have been continually dehumanized in the United States. She also uses less familiar footage, such as clips from the 1924 Democratic National Convention, which had no black delegates, juxtaposed against footage of black men imprisoned working on farms in chain gangs. Supported by the interviewees’ commentary, the images help weave the narrative that highlights the parallels of how the United States has systematically deemed black people as “low-status individuals” so that they are criminalized and then used for economic gain.

When the film reaches the 1970s, it stuns with bold graphics of the number of people in prison then compared to now in 2016. The film delves into how the number of incarcerated people has risen in conjunction with legal movements, such as the “War on Drugs,” the “three strikes” rule, and the heavily monetized, privatized/industrial prison complex. (According to the Prison Policy Initiative, more than 2.3 million adults are incarcerated in the United States.) What is stomach churning is the realization that mass incarceration is a protracted experience that we, as citizens—whether you are white, black, or brown, liberal or conservative—have cosigned with our vote, inattention, or the belief that “only bad people go to jail.” In fact, the film posits something quite different: layered, systemic injustice. DuVernay presents facts and stories shared by her interviewees, which include Solo Mom Deborah Peterson Small, who is the founding executive director of Break the Chains, a public policy research center and advocacy organization, to keenly support her hypothesis.

This idea is not just presented once and left for the viewer to remember; DuVernay wants to make sure that her message is seen, heard, and felt. The film is relentless in revealing how the media has aided in the ritualistic messaging that “black people equal criminals.” She uses contemporary hip-hop music throughout and the repetition of words and imagery, especially highlighting the word criminal whenever it is said (which is often). The film continues on a historical timeline, linking the idea of the “scary negro” in the white-supremacist propaganda film Birth of a Nation alongside Hillary Clinton’s “superpredator” reference to the now-acquitted African American youth known as the “Central Park Five.” For added emphasis, and a nod to the 2016 presidential election, DuVernay includes a news clip of Donald Trump wanting these young men to receive the death penalty. And if you haven’t thrown your viewing device across the room at this point in the film, be prepared for your heart to split open with the story of Kalief Browder, a young man who was stopped by police for allegedly stealing a backpack. Browder remained in Riker’s Island Prison complex for three years without a trial. His story exposes the tragedy of the U.S. justice system.

A more conservative take on the film might argue that DuVernay is “race baiting” by focusing on the oversentimentalizing of civil-rights movement–era politics by the black bourgeois. (That has also been the critique of the Black Lives Matter movement.) Yet, it is difficult to understand the problems of social ills and the damage that has been inflicted on the black community without historical context.

You might be wondering, Why should I watch this? Why should my child(ren) see this? Here’s my answer: The 13th captures a pointed aspect of what it is like for black people living in our American experiment by making a compelling case for what appears to be situational or random. You and your child(ren) might begin to understand that our country is set up to make things difficult for some. Having that knowledge does not have to be used as an excuse but may propel them to fight for changes in our laws that benefit everyone. It is helpful to understand the nuances of the past to get a grasp on our present to make a better future. That is how activists are created.

DuVernay’s film is inspiring for that reason.

Thumbnail credit: Screen grab from “13th | Official Trailer [HD] | Netflix”

Tanisha Christie is an interdisciplinary performing artist and filmmaker. After years of working at the nexus of arts, media, social justice, and healing, she is currently finishing her master of social work (clinical specialization) at Hunter College in New York City. A child of a Solo Mom, she loves to ride her bike to the beach.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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