On October 7, 2016 the 13th documentary was made live to the public via Netflix. The film was directed by Ava DuVernay and it explores the issues of race inequality in the United States prison systems. More specifically, the documentary focuses on the history and statistics surrounding African American men being disproportionally represented in prisons.
It was rightfully named “13th” due to the nature of the 13th amendment which many people believe just freed the slaves. However, many people do not realize that the amendment has a loop hole. It reads:
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.
The documentary is quick to point out that the writers of this amendment knew that they would need a way to keep the minority groups under control. At the time, plantation owners depended on slaves for work and slaves were the backbone of the US economy. Once the amendment was passed, black peoples were convicted for petty crimes and put into jail, only to be sent back to the fields as prisoners instead of slaves.
The film received praise from critics and scholars across the nation. It has a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. It is a fresh take on America’s history and present day problems.
Ava DuVernay features black scholars from across the country in her documentary to speak on the issue of mass incarceration. A few names include Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a professor at Harvard University and Van Jones, a Yale graduate and commentator on CNN. In the entire documentary, she has over a dozen intellectuals give their two cents on the epidemic at stake.
The documentary intertwines footage from present-day prisons, the civil rights movement, presidential speeches, congressional processions and more. Each new source makes the film more credible in the eyes of the viewer.
The film makes historical and contemporary connections to race relations in the United States. The documentary starts its narrative with the controversial history of the enslavement of African descended people. Once freed, the slaves were put under Jim Crow law. After Jim Crow, there was the civil rights era which included lynchings and the height of the Klu Klux Klan. Present day leads us to the mass incarceration of black men. Once put into jail, prisoners lose all of their rights, just as a slave would. Once released, they cannot vote, they cannot get jobs, and therefore, they can not afford to own property. All of which were the many dreams of slaves in the late 1800s. The main theme of the documentary is that even though America outlawed slavery, Jim Crow, etc. each just rebirths itself under a new name in a new form. The struggle that is left is stopping the corporatization of prisons and ensuring that once mass incarceration is dealt with, it does not come up again under a new guise.