In the gripping and traumatic feature-length documentary 13th, critically acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay characterizes the modern-day U.S. criminal justice system as a direct extension of slavery. This Oscar-nominated film exposes the real motives behind the record number of incarcerations in the U.S., and smartly harkens back to this phenomenon's shameful origins over a century ago.
The United States holds the record for the most incarcerations per capita in the entire world. Lawmakers and penal system representatives claim this unprecedented enslavement is the byproduct when one is tasked to keep their communities safe from violent or destructive criminal activity. But the overwhelming evidence - as presented in the film - indicates otherwise.
The film begins by outlining the lasting reach of popular mythmaking as epitomized in the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, which successfully resuscitated the Ku Klux Klan and promoted the image of the black man as crass and vulgar criminals.
This, in turn, was further expressed across the political landscape. Through telling historical footage and insightful interviews with scholars, journalists and political players, the film runs down the most consequential culprits: Nixon's war on crime, Reagan's war on drugs, Clinton's sweeping crime bill. Each of these movements worked to squelch black liberation while boosting the prison-industrial complex.
The economics of mass incarceration is another dynamic explored in the film. DuVernay is not shy about singling out the corporations who seek maximum profits from the incarceration of human beings. It is in the interests of their shareholders to keep a steady influx of bodies ushered into their prison compounds. These bodies are overwhelmingly African American. Whether the imprisonment is justified by a minor drug offense or from the country's catastrophic immigration laws, the outcome lines the pockets of the greedy elite while decimating entire generations of families. The scourge of prison overcrowding shows little signs of waning as long as it’s being monetized to such an alarming degree.
From The Birth of a Nation to Trayvon Martin, 13th does a commendable job of creating a sense of symmetry from a broad plane of history. It stands as the essential cinematic portrait of this troubling issue.
Directed by: Ava DuVernay