Director: Ava DuVernay
Cast: Melina Abdullah, Michelle Alexander, Cory Booker
Watch 13th online in the UK: Netflix UK
Directed by Ava DuVernay (Selma), this superbly made documentary explores the indisputable connection between the US constitution’s 13th Amendment and America’s astronomical incarceration rates. In doing so, it presents a devastating critique of US race relations that makes for uncomfortable yet essential viewing.
The film opens with an eye-opening statistic, courtesy of President Barack Obama, namely that America has 5 per cent of the world’s population and 25 per cent of its prisoners, the overwhelming majority of whom are black men. Using a combination of informative talking heads (historians, academics, authors, activists) and archive footage, DuVernay traces a history of U.S. race relations, beginning with the 13th Amendment, intended to abolish slavery, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”. That clause was immediately used as an excuse to arrest large numbers of black men for vagrancy and various other crimes, which gave the state a work force that it didn’t have to pay.
That pattern is reflected throughout the ensuing decades, reaching an apotheosis with Nixon and Reagan’s War On Drugs, which is effectively an excuse to jail large numbers of black men for minor drug offences – the film makes clear that the sentencing is extremely disproportionate, with possession of crack (mainly used by impoverished black men) carrying a much longer jail term than possession of cocaine (the white middle-class drug of choice). However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as becomes clear when DuVernay includes a jaw-dropping audio clip of Nixon aide John Ehrlichman openly admitting that the drugs crackdown knowingly targeted dissidents and black men.
The film also traces the ways in which black men have been demonised in the name of fear-mongering in modern culture, something DuVernay hammers home by having the word “CRIMINAL” repeatedly flash up on the screen. Finally, it lays bare the shocking reality behind the modern-day prison system, namely that prisons are run by profiteering corporations, while a multitude of big-name companies routinely use prison labour as a free work-force, effectively perpetuating a system of slavery but calling it by another name.
DuVernay includes a number of horrifying moments that will make you seethe with righteous anger – one particularly chilling example has Donald Trump talking about “the good old days”, over footage of black protesters getting beaten by police. However, the film’s most effective moment comes towards the end, when DuVernay cuts together a number of cameraphone recordings of black men getting shot by police, including Philandro Castile, who was killed as recently as July of this year. It’s a powerful and upsetting sequence, rooted in a line of argument from Martin Luther King in the Civil Rights era about the importance of televising such incidents.
This is a superbly made and vital documentary that demands to be seen.
The 13th is available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.49 monthly subscription.