Think about that: ’13th’ explores mass incarceration
Nora McGreevy | Monday, November 21, 2016
Numbers play an important role in Ava DuVernay’s new documentary “13th,” which premiered on the opening night of the New York Film Festival and was released on Netflix Oct 7.
The first words of the film, lifted from a speech President Obama gave to the NAACP in 2015, underscore this fact. “So let’s look at the statistics,” announces the disembodied voice of the president. On screen, a white outline of the contiguous 50 states appears, like white chalk on a classroom blackboard. “The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.”
“Think about that.”
We are given a few moments to contemplate before a new barrage of numbers rolls through:
The United States holds 2.3 million prisoners behind bars.
In his lifetime, the average white male living in America has a 1-in-17 chance of going to prison at some point in his life.
The average black male’s chances, on the other hand? One-in-3.
These numbers and other supporting statistics and evidence provide the skeleton framework of DuVernay’s documentary. Through a compilation of stirring interviews, archival footage, thorough historical research and a blend of philosophical and legal thought, “13th” brings these numbers to life.
The documentary offers answers to many of the questions that these statistics provoke. Why does the U.S. imprison such a staggering amount of its own people? Why does this burden land most heavily on our Latinx and especially our African-American populations?
Part of the answers to these questions lies in another number, this time a symbolic one: The title of the film refers to the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States. Ratified in 1865, this amendment abolished slavery — “except as punishment for crime.”
This loophole created the space for a radical transformation in the prison system, wherein white former slave owners used the prison system to suppress a newly freed black population. This was the germ of today’s current prison system. The documentary then reconstructs the history of mass incarceration in the United States, beginning with the Reformation, covering Jim Crow Laws and the tumultuous Civil Rights era of the 1950s and ’60s and analyzing the ways in which policies of the 1980s and ’90s pushed the era of mass incarceration to new heights.
Storytelling is accomplished primarily through impactful interviews with a host of celebrity figures and celebrated legal thinkers, including CNN commentator Van Jones, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, author Michelle Alexander, scholar Angela Davis and many others.
The film argues that the history of mass incarceration in America is also the history of institutionalized race-based slavery. One story cannot be told in its entirety without recreating the story of the other. As Duvernay put in an interview with The Atlantic, “the film was 150 years in the making.”
Although it espouses a strong activist message, the film consciously positions itself outside of the political binary, criticizing both Donald Trump and the Clintons. DuVernay herself recently reprimanded a Democratic party staffer for tweeting a clip of the film without context for political purposes. The clip, one of the most powerful from the film, depicts video footage from Trump rallies cut with videos of Civil Rights protestors from the 1950s, as Trump’s voice plays in the background: “You see, in the good old days, law enforcement acted a lot quicker than this.”
The documentary does not shy away from engaging in contemporary discourse on civil rights, reflecting DuVernay’s own strong activism and beliefs. The last 15 minutes of the film are dedicated to an unpacking of the Black Lives Matter movement, portraying the movement as the most recent development in America’s complicated history with race and institutionalized discrimination.
The film harshly criticizes the rise of prison privatization under Ronald Reagan, decries the “war on drugs” waged by politicians in the last 50 years and casts blame on Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, which included mandatory minimums for low-level drug offenses and a “three strikes, you’re out” policy that led to a sharp uptick in imprisonments nationwide. It also problematizes the relatively recent outcry for prison reform as the opportunistic empty words of politicians seeking votes.
In today’s whirlwind of hyper-partisan politics and toxic fake news, “13th” provides essential insight, articulating a thoughtfully researched narrative in a beautiful and invigorating format.