4th September 2023
22nd November 2016
Ava DuVernay’s galvanising documentary 13th injects a brilliantly narrated, blood-boiling perspective of historical synthesis explaining mass incarceration in the United States.
The title refers to the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution, which outlaws slavery, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”. DuVernay’s use of potent archive material and eloquent interviews with academics and activists such as Angela Davis, expose this loophole and draws a linear trajectory of state violence from slavery to imprisonment. She argues that the “mythology of black criminality” has long been used by politicians for campaigning power and shows how this has been exploited by the corporate ambitions of the prison system.
13th bracingly shows the intersection of race, politics and mass incarceration. It features several interviews with law professor Michelle Alexander, whose 2010 best seller The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness played a monumental role in shaping public and political debate, presenting the timeline of US racial oppression as a narrative of today’s racist prison industrial complex. DuVernay, who also directed the Oscar-winning Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma (2014), manages to present a long history and orchestrate the rising voices heard in interviews into a powerful and electrifying concert in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the 2016 election.
DuVernay infuses the documentary with material which is at times graphic and disturbing, carrying a tone of anger against the topography of terror endured by the black community, but one which does not cloud the credibility of the overall aim to document targeted violence and discrimination against black people in America. A montage of Trump supporters getting violent with black protesters is juxtaposed against archival clips of civil rights protesters decades earlier.Donald Trump’s own words provided in voiceover offer a chilling sense of his future presidency: “In the old days, protesters would be carried out on stretchers” and, “in the good old days this would never happen because they would treat them very rough.”
DuVernay’s Netflix documentary is a cinematic outcry laying bare the core and soul of the United States. Viewers grasp the larger, more potent implications of her argument as she recounts recent police killings of black people, showing that racism and criminalisation is systematic, highly profitable, and deeply entrenched in the nucleus of American political discourse, and indeed, in the US Constitution itself.
13th is available to watch via Netflix.Running time 1 hr 40 min.
Author Kevin Schlenker is a Masters student of Transnational Crime, Justice & Security at the University of Glasgow