Growing up, prison seemed like an abstract concept to me, one reserved for “Law & Order” episodes and select family members who would be absent every other Christmas or Thanksgiving holiday. It wasn’t until I arrived in college in a class on Black Urban Studies, that I was educated about the mass incarceration that occurs in this country. I watched the 1998 documentary “The Farm: Angola, USA,” and read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” It was through these two mediums that the system of dehumanization and oppression was revealed to me. I distinctly remember feeling horrified that the prisoners of Angola were required to pick cotton as a part of their daily tasks. Slavery was, after all, long ago abolished. However, I soon learned and continued to learn that nothing ever really goes away; it’s merely reinvented into a more easily digestible package ripe for public consumption.
Slavery was abolished in 1865 with the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which 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.” That loophole in the text is essential. It allowed the government to begin criminalizing Black bodies as a way to continue stealing their labor, since slavery was no longer legal. In a rapidly paced documentary which spans from the end of the Civil War until the present day, Ava DuVernay’s “13th” is a sobering look at our corrupt prison and judicial systems, and the relentless terrorizing of Black people.
Though the trailer for the film focuses on prison labor, “13th” is much more expansive than that. From D.W. Griffith’s 1915 blockbuster “The Birth Of A Nation,” to the circus that is the Donald Trump political campaign, DuVernay speaks with over thirty subjects in the film. Everyone, from scholar and prison abolitionist, Angela Davis, to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senator Cory Booker, discuss the political and historical policies that were put in place which allow the United States to incarcerate twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners, though the US only makes up five percent of the world’s population.
An exceedingly clear and straightforward documentary film which includes standard talking heads, “13th” has very few frills, save for some rap lyrics and illustrated charts and figures that are used as transitions throughout. To be frank, I would have been even more absorbed with either a longer film, or one that was more slowly paced. “13th” races through one hundred and fifty-one years of history, and my mind was often still reflecting on the previous scene while the film introduced a new topic. I also could have done without the transitions, as they tended to take me out of the story altogether; not in sync with the traditional documentary style of the film. Still, because “13th” will be distributed on Netflix, I’m confident that this was deliberate on DuVernay’s part to make the movie easily digestible for mass audiences, while making it uniquely teachable in classroom settings.
Along with the ample amount of information in the film, the archival footage immersed throughout, resonated most with me. Shots of various riots, lynchings, courtroom footage, from Angela Davis’ infamous trial, murdered Black Panther, Fred Hampton’s blood-stained mattress, and, most poignantly perhaps, a recording of an elegant Black man from the ‘60s being pushed around and spat upon as he walked the streets, with a monstrous white mob following him.
For lovers of history or those who have studied the ramifications of the Nixon, Regan, Bush and Clinton administrations, “13th” may not necessarily have a ton of groundbreaking facts or information. However, what the film does beautifully, is its connecting of a thread that runs through the past one hundred and fifty years; we did not come to this place in history by accident. In 1972, there were just over three-hundred thousand souls incarcerated in the United States, and today, that number has risen astronomically to well over two million. The War on Drugs tells only half the story. Policies like mandatory sentencing minimums, laws written by The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and the wretched state of our bail and parole systems, have been centuries in the making. Also, as DuVernay impresses upon us in “13th”, there has been, and continues to be a relentless dehumanizing rhetoric surrounding Black people, depicting us as menacing criminals, or the favored buzzword of the ‘90s, “superpredators”, along with unending racism – all of which have contributed to this moment.
People are still turning their noses up at Black Lives Matter, or trying to twist the meaning behind the movement into something that it’s not. “13th” cuts out all of the noise by presenting the facts as they are. As DuVernay told the Village Voice, “I wanted to give people this information so they couldn’t say they didn’t know anymore.” Personally, I am not so naïve as to think that some people won’t ignore what this film is saying about our country, or what these horrendous policies have done to people of color (particularly poor Black people). However, in spite of that, DuVernay has returned our story to us by saying, despite all of the horror and terror, we have managed to fight back, and even more, to find joy.
“13th” opened the New York Film Festival on Friday, September 30th. It was the first time in NYFF history that a work of non-fiction was chosen as the opening night film. It will be released on Netflix and in select theaters on Friday, October 7th.
Watch the film’s trailer below:
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami