13th (2016)
June 15, 2020 2:52 PM - Subscribe

An in-depth look at the prison system in the United States and how it reveals the nation's history of racial inequality.

NYTimes: The movie hinges on the 13th Amendment, as the title indicates, in ways that may be surprising, though less so for those familiar with Michelle Alexander’s 2010 best seller, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Ratified in 1865, the amendment states in full: “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.” As Ms. Alexander underscores, slavery was abolished for everyone except criminals.

RogerEbert.com: We’re told that, after the Civil War, the economy of the former Confederate States of America was decimated. Their primary source of income, slaves, were no longer obligated to line Southerners’ pockets with their blood, sweat and tears. Unless, of course, they were criminals. “Except as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” reads the loophole in the law. In the first iteration of a “Southern strategy,” hundreds of newly emancipated slaves were re-enlisted into free, legal servitude courtesy of minor or trumped-up charges. The duly convicted part may have been questionable, but by no means did it need to be justifiably proven.

So begins a cycle that DuVernay examines in each of its evolving iterations; when one method of subservience-based terror falls out of favor, another takes its place. The list feels endless and includes lynching, Jim Crow, Nixon’s presidential campaign, Reagan’s War on Drugs, Bill Clinton’s Three Strikes and mandatory sentencing laws and the current cash-for-prisoners model that generates millions for private bail and incarceration firms.

Vox: Throughout 13th, black people assert again and again that their goal is to be seen as full, complex humans—to be rehumanized, as several put it, in the face of centuries of dehumanization. Things have changed, in many respects. But the film shows that troubling trends in incarceration (and particularly in the privatization of the prison system, which is more complicated than the headlines) continue to strip away citizens’ dignity and humanity.

These statistics and arguments have been presented before, but rarely with such cinematic lucidity. DuVernay and her co-writer Spencer Averick (who also edited the film) rely on the usual activist documentary format to build their case — interviews and statistics, no narration — but their sense of the film as a movie and not just a nightly news segment is what makes it engaging and even enraging. Films aren’t just vehicles for delivering information: They involve music, editing, and, most importantly, images.

The Undefeated: In one of the most affecting moments of the documentary, DuVernay juxtaposes images of black people experiencing violence at Trump rallies with footage from the civil rights era of a black man in a suit, surrounded by whites who continually push, goad, and belittle him as he’s walking down a sidewalk. As the footage plays, DuVernay superimposes audio from Trump speeches in which he’s encouraging his supporters to punch dissenters and calling for the good ole days. DuVernay eliminates the subtext and any sort of reasonable doubt about the meaning of his words, on which Trump has come to depend. She removes the possibility for gaslighting.

Vogue: If you follow the news, tune into John Oliver, and had a good American history teacher in high school, you’ll already know the major plot points in 13th. But DuVernay connects the dots, forcing us to face our history and consider how doing so reframes our understanding of the present. The picture that emerges is scary.

The film also recasts the conversation about race in this country in terms that are appropriately shocking. Lynchings were acts of terrorism. African-Americans who fled north during Jim Crow were refugees. And a system that puts black men in chains and asks them to work for free on behalf of the countless corporations that depend on prison labor and profit from mass incarceration? That’s slavery by a different name.

Slate: I’m a criminal justice reporter, and Ava DuVernay’s new Netflix documentary about mass incarceration shocked me.

WaPo: Ava DuVernay’s Netflix film ’13th’ reveals how mass incarceration is an extension of slavery

The Atlantic: Ava DuVernay's 13th Reframes American History

NPR: Documentary '13TH' Argues Mass Incarceration Is An Extension Of Slavery


Streaming: Netflix; Open Culture
posted by MoonOrb (4 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I worked on it!
posted by Ideefixe at 7:13 PM on June 16, 2020 [6 favorites]

Saw it at a film festival with DuVernay presenting. This movie is so well crafted and it's message is so well argued that it really makes me think less of almost any other political documentary that I can think of. Michael Moore's work, for example, just seems lazy and slap-dash in comparison.
posted by octothorpe at 4:16 AM on June 17, 2020 [3 favorites]

Video of DuVernay's Q&A from EbertFest 2018 after the showing of 13th.
posted by octothorpe at 4:19 AM on June 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

An absolute masterwork, 13th is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. Maybe even the best. I'm ever recommending it to anyone who might listen. So so worthy of your time.
posted by 6thsense at 9:31 PM on June 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

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