The Modern Slavery of the 13th

Ava DuVernay’s social justice documentary, 13th was released on Netflix this weekend after opening the New York Film Festival when it premiered there last month, the first documentary to ever open the festival. The film is named after the 13th amendment to the constitution. The amendment is credited with outlawing slavery in America by making involuntary servitude illegal except as “punishment for crime”. That loophole was exploited almost immediately and DuVernay’s film provides a robust explanation of the methods and the results of that exploitation.

13th was screened at the White House recently, almost a hundred years after another pivotal film was screened there. That early 20th century film was D.W. Griffith’s, The Birth of a Nation, a racist fictional telling of the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. DuVernay’s film explores the ways in which Griffith’s film laid the psychological groundwork of criminalizing black people in the eyes of America. 13th tracks the different ways the policies exploited the indoctrinated fear of black people and the way that lead to the prison population we see today.

Dealing with such a heavy subject it should go without saying that this film has its sad, hard to watch moments. The subject of mass incarceration is sad and hard to take, or at least it should be. One of the more profound points that DuVernay’s documentary makes is the fact that high levels of incarceration and criminalization of black people happened right in front of our eyes, sometimes with the support of the very same black communities that were destined to suffer the most because of it.

The 13th amendment was suppose to outlaw slavery, Ava DuVernay’s documentary points out the sad truth of what it actually did. Since the amendment made it constitutionally legal to enslave someone if they are legally deemed a criminal, then essentially the word “criminal” is synonymous with the word “slave”, and if we have more black men in prison today than were enslaved during the days of slavery, then there are technically more black slaves in America today than before 1865 when slavery was supposed to be outlawed.

This documentary should be considered required viewing for anyone wanting to learn about America’s system of incarceration and racism. Much like the writings of Angela Davis and the book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (both women are featured in 13th) this documentary does a thorough job of explaining America’s racist incarceration problem and will more than likely be considered a classic. Will it help bring about change? That’s for society to answer.