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Netflix's new documentary 13th couldn't have arrived at a better, more relevant time. Right before the most important (and terrifying) election in recent memory, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, in a year filled with unspeakable tragedy and racially charged police brutality, the latest film from acclaimed Selma director Ava DuVernay is a much-needed, sobering punch to the face that eloquently contextualizes the current state of America and one of its most important issues.
Weaving archival footage with talking heads of politicians and activists, the film (streaming on Netflix starting today, Oct. 7) examines mass incarceration in the United States, specifically of people of color, through the lens of the 13th Amendment, which states, “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.”
The documentary shows how after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the very amendment that was supposed to enshrine the end of slavery provided a loophole to create de facto slaves through the prison system, filled with a disproportionate percentage of black and brown people. While many of us may already know about the corruption and racism endemic to the United States' justice system, DuVernay throws shocking statistics in our face to back her argument and snap you to attention. Here’s one: While one in 17 white males will go to jail or prison in their lifetime, for black males, the odds are one in three. The documentary never gets academically dull or heavy-handedly preachy; it moves at a passionate pace, providing an experience that is both informative and exhilarating.
DuVernay and many of her players (including activist Angela Davis and The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander) make sure to note that the root of the problem lies beyond faulty laws; it's the national mentality that's diseased. It stems from the foundation of this nation, through the Civil War, pop culture like D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (in which black people are depicted as savage rapists), and Jim Crow. And the consequences are seen even today, in the injustices against Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and many more. To see the same kind of biased brutality over and over again is heartbreaking, maddening, and senseless, and that's the exact kind of reaction DuVernay wants: We as a people need to care in order to change. "I cried a lot making this. It was emotionally exhausting," DuVernay said at a Q&A during New York Film Festival on Oct. 1. "It was really, really challenging to do, but they must be done. We have to see these [images]." She specifically points out footage of an old black man being attacked by a mob, but the film's brutal imagery also includes photos of lynching and modern-day smart phone recordings of black citizens murdered in the hands of police officers.
Aside from just pointing out wrongs and inciting outrage, DuVernay educates us about political subtexts that some perhaps haven't considered before, such as Nixon's war on drugs (a mission more aggressively carried out by Reagan), which put even more people of color behind bars, often for minor, nonviolent offenses that came with mandatory minimum sentences. She calls out both presidential candidates: Trump for his advocacy of the death penalty in the Central Park jogger case, in which five black teenagers were accused of rape but later found innocent, and Clinton for her support of her husband's 1994 crime bill, which put more cops on the streets and provided more money for prisons (Bill Clinton later admitted the bill was a terrible mistake). One of the most eye-opening discoveries from 13th is the corporate control lurking behind the justice system, most notably via policy tank ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), which is backed by companies like Walmart (America's biggest seller of guns) and drafts and pushes conservative, often discriminatory bills to state legislatures and Congress. ALEC is the group responsible for Florida's Stand Your Ground law, used to justify the murder of Trayvon Martin in court.
DuVernay isn't expecting to eradicate groups like ALEC or immediately reverse any legislative acts with her film. That would be naive and wishful thinking. Instead, 13th is an educational tool, built on the hope that more awareness will lead to change. "People don’t know about this...history," DuVernay said during the Q&A. "They don’t know how we’ve gotten to this moment where people have to actually protest and be in the streets and say, 'My life matters.' My hope is that you see this and we start to change as people, we start to think twice about how we treat each other."