13th [2016] – A Powerful Examination of Racial Inequality in America


‘Criminal’ is the keyword in activist/film-maker AvaDuvernay’s clear-eyed documentary on the American racial inequality, 13th (2016). The word flashes across the screen every time a talking head or someone in news footage mentions it. This noun is inquired from a different perspective and shown to be a tool, used by American government to uphold a form of slavery. The 13th amendment of the US Constitution signed in 1865 outlawed, “Slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime”. AvaDuvernay demonstrates how the rulers used the ‘exception’ in the law to criminalize the African-American men for the past four and a half decades. The little loophole in the law is said to be used to lock up black men on minor changes, which has eventually lead to the current mass-incarceration phenomenon. United States has a prison population of 2.3 million, roughly 25 percent of the world’s total prison population. The nation leads the world in incarcerations per 100 thousand of population (724 people per 100,000). The five percent US population of African-American men percent occupies more than 40 percent of American prison population. Although the mass incarceration factor and American government’s treat men of black community isn’t a surprising news, 13th takes a profound look at how the prison and justice system sits at the center of America’s racial inequality.

Director AvaDuvernay covers a lot of historical ground here and does so without exhausting with information. The fine use of montage and clear-cut expressions instills a force to the engrossing material. The documentary’s form resembles the work of Alex Gibney or Michael Moore, who all like to punctuate the transformations in history or culture through some contextual video or news clips. In the early portion, we see an elderly African-American pursued by white American mob, smacking his hat and kicking him (during the civil rights era). This image is juxtaposed (in a later portion) with the image of Trump supporters beating up ‘Black Lives Matter’ protestors (Donald Trump talking about the “good old days” plays in the background). Even though the documentary is a searing indictment of the US prison system, the question it asks very simple: Why do part of the public, belonging to the so-called ‘world’s super power’, consider men of different color as inferior?

American political activist and author Angela Davies

American political activist and author Angela Davies

The documentary starts from the 1865 mandate and how the freed slaves were chained through other false pretenses to re-build the American south after the civil war. Shocking acts of lynchings and other forms of cruel punishment persisted on African-American community in the south. A vintage head-line reads, “Negro boy was killed for Wolf Whistle”. There were numerous photographs of white community, gathered in thousands, standing close to hanged black men body. Back in those times, mass incarceration and fear among the black community is considered to be the way to get free labor for re-building the South. Then the narrative moves on to directly accuse D.W. Griffith’s benchmark cinema “Birth of a Nation” (1915) as the reason for increase in violence against black community and for entrenching the image of a black male as rapist and animalistic. Many of the myths against black men were alleged to be designed by Griffith’s film (which was based Thomas J. Dixon’s 1905 book The Clansman) and it is also credited for the resurgence of Ku Klux Klan (the burning of cross is a ritual the clan was said to have derived from the movie).

The documentary’s early recollections of the painful history indicate how the American Justice system have always worked against the poor and disenfranchised. Nevertheless, the Civil Rights Movement threatened to upend this brutal status quo. Once the link between 13th amendments to cultural depictions (like in “Birth of Nation”) to Jim Crow to Civil Rights era is established, Duvernay delves into the current mass incarceration problem, which actually started in the Nixon era (1970s) and kept on booming from Regan to Obama era.  After making a dash through the post-Civil War American history, Duvernay continues to compare the unchanged perception about African-Americans (and their eventual criminalization). Before 1970 the US Correctional system had less than 200,000 prisoners. President Reagan’s ‘War on Drugs’ and President Clinton’s ‘Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act’ took the prison population to the millions. If Reagan’s administration targeted crack cocaine users in urban centers, populated with non-white people (the arrest of White people using powder cocaine was so less), Clinton regime’s ‘three strikes policy’ is said to have designed to keep the minor offenders forever inside the prison. The famous footage of Hillary Clinton calling the young African-American men as ‘Super-Predators’ doesn’t seem so different from the portrayal of black men – white actor in black-face – as rapist in “Birth of a Nation”.


One of the chilling revelation belongs to Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman who’s caught on a tape saying, “We couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.” The most powerful insights derived from 13th is the influence of lobbying groups like American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and business groups like Corrections Corporation of America, which easily passed on bills and built state-of-the-art private prisons to generate big profit. The involvement of Walmart, ExxonMobil, and the CCA to the privatization of prison systems is positioned alongside the old tactic of landowners to use black slaves in their plantations. DuVernay interviews one of ALEC members who envision a future law enforcement tactic of use ankle bracelets and GPS to track the movements of potential offenders. Such ideas show how the privatization ideology keeps on innovating new forms of oppression to watch over the entire black community (without even locking them up).

Ava Duvernay has gathered at least 25 talking heads, from well known figures like political advocate Angela Davis to Michelle Alexander (author of ‘The New Jim Crow’). This sprawling, fly-on-the-wall approach could have been dampened, if not for the humane, conversational tone rendered by the speakers and the relentless delivery of hard facts. If there is one misstep, it is the lack of ideological balance.  DuVernay feigns ideological balance by interviewing a representative from ALEC, but his totally unconvincing explanation was easily dismissed by a big thinker. However, the documentary never simplifies its arguments. It puts everything into the right context. It covers & connects the whole picture of how generations of oppressors continue to reinvent themselves by using law as their tool to chain the masses. Now that picture is something universal, which could be related all the oppressed people of the world.

Ava Duvernay’s incendiary documentary 13th (100 minutes) – -premiered on Netflix – incriminates America’s devastating institutional prejudices and calls up for an immediate change.


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