13th: From Slavery to Mass Incarceration in the U.S.

Frame of 13th, Ava DuVernay

After an electoral campaign where diversity and the –disguised to the day- racism in the United States have been more visible than ever, a documentary analyzes mass incarceration of black men in one of the most powerful countries in the world, which is also the country with the largest incarceration rate in the world. 

The documentary, directed by Ava DuVernay (‘Selma’) and available on Netflix, is named ‘13th,’ after the 13th Amendment of the American Constitution, which states that “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.” In the eyes of DuVernay, the 13th amendment allowed society to keep imprisoning young black men for minor offenses and use them as forced labor after slavery was abolished. The system would remain untouched until nowadays, where prisons –managed by private companies- are packed with men who can earn as little as 12 cents an hour working for corporations such as Victoria Secret’s or Walmart.

For those still hesitant, DuVernay proves the institutionalization of a mass incarceration system by just showing figures; in recent decades, imprisoned population in the U.S has grown from 513,000 men in 1970 to 2.3 million today, 40% of them of Afro-American descent.

Activists, politicians and historians guide us throughout the documentary, running from the current tendency to give voice to entertainment celebrities. Names like Angela Davis –who appears being judged in times of the Jim Crow, where racial segregation laws dominated the country- or Michelle Alexander –author of ‘The new Jim Crow’, about the current mass incarceration system- join us as we analyze black history in the U.S. together with the laws that have allowed –and still do- the criminalization of Afro-American people.

Despite the importance of the contextualization and historical overview performed by DuVernay and her guests, such a documentary couldn’t be released in 2016 without taking a glace at the election and the position that both candidates, Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton, have adopted towards institutionalized racism. Clinton is pictured supporting her husband, Bill Clinton, as he enacted “the 3 strikes law,” which promulgated that being convicted for three minor offenses would entail incarceration. Clinton calling young boys “super-predators” gives us goose bumps, but it is even scarier to compare Trump rallies to the times of the civil rights movement, when black citizens were expelled from public places because of the color of their skin.

Despite not adding new arguments to debate, ‘13th’ becomes an absolutely necessary piece to contextualize what brought us here, to the current situation in the United States, where an electoral candidate can be openly racist and where we need a movement like Black Lives Matter to visualize how part of the police force of this country (mis)treats black American citizens.

Ava DuVernay tells us about a broken justice system, where laws allow for the oppression of an important part of the population. Maybe this undivided analysis made 13th be the very first documentary to ever open the New York Film Festival in its 54th edition.