I don’t watch a lot of documentaries, but my two younger sisters desperately urged me to watch “13th” on Netflix, directed by Ava DuVernay. I knew she had directed Selma, so I figured the documentary would be pretty good. I truly had no idea just how good it would be.
The documentary is based around, and named for, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery. The amendment was ratified in 1865 and stated: “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.” Somehow, I never really thought about the clause right in the middle of that sentence, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
DuVernay’s documentary focuses in on that clause and details how she, and many others, believe that it is the reason so many African American men and other people of color are currently in our nation’s prison systems. She interviews scholars, white and black, and others who substantiate this claim with very convincing evidence. They all agree that the clause has basically allowed slavery to continue under the guise of keeping “criminals” behind bars.
I’ve known for many years that our prison system is broken and in need of a desperate overhaul, but I truly didn’t realize the extent of it until I watched “13th”. I also didn’t realize the degree in which our prisons are systematically and calculatedly filled. Listening to the people interviewed talk about how vastly interconnected the prisons are to huge corporations and political organizations was mind blowing and also extremely disheartening; especially given our current political climate in the wake of the presidential election.
“13th” is an incredibly powerful film and I think DuVernay excellently weaves her claim into the broader picture of current race relations in the US. It truly speaks to a lot of the issues African Americans and people of color are dealing with today and, in my opinion, is a must watch for everyone. Regardless of the opinions or conclusions you come to after watching, it assure you it will have made you think a little harder about why so many African Americans are imprisoned and why so many people of color are continually and systematically disenfranchised.