I just saw the film “13TH” on Friday. The film is a documentary about mass incarceration directed by Ava DuVernay, who directed the film “Selma.” The film is available on Netflix.
13th presents its story through a combination of interviews and archival footage. DuVernay interviewed a range of academics, politicians, and practitioners: law professor Michelle Alexander (author of “The New Jim Crow”), attorney Bryan Stevenson (founder of Equal Justice Initiative and author of “Just Mercy”), Senator Cory Booker, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, amongst others. She also interviewed formerly incarcerated individuals on their experiences both behind bars and trying to reenter society. She employed archival footage from D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” to news footage from the Civil Rights Movement to speeches by politicians (incidentally, Bill and Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump all appear, and not in the best light).
The film’s title refers to the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which abolished slavery “except as punishment for a crime.” The central thesis is that this loophole has allowed racism and white supremacy to morph from the chattel slavery before the Civil War through convict leasing, Jim Crow laws, and the current issue of mass incarceration.
The film says a lot in its 100 minute span, and it can be exhausting. In one segment, the film barrels through the bail system, for-profit prisons, high cost of prison phone calls, use of prison labor by corporations, and the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. Even with this scope, the film doesn’t discuss other criminal justice issues, such as solitary confinement, the death penalty, and prison rape. The film also would have benefited from interviews with criminal justice officials (such as police or prosecutors), to have their perspective heard. But the film succeeds as a window into a desolate and painful world that most people don’t care to see and believe doesn’t exist.
Some may chafe at the idea that mass incarceration and drug convictions are equivalent to Jim Crow laws. The same criticism was levied at Michelle Alexander’s book (in some ways, “13th” can be considered the film version of “The New Jim Crow”). But the film does a powerful job of describing how the two systems are related to a much larger paradigm that solidifies racial categories and assigns value to certain people based on observable but irrelevant characteristics.
Watch this film with your friends, talk about it, and listen to each other. Even if you disagree with its claims, realize that it resonates for many people, and listen to what they have to say. In fact, I am glad that this film debuted on Netflix, as it is best watched in small settings for conversation.