13th is a documentary written and directed by Ava DuVernay. It looks at how America came to be the country with the most incarcerated people on the planet and how institutional and societal systems keep it that way.
After premiering in a few theaters, the film moved to Netflix, where it is now streaming. With the help of a wide selection of talking heads and some well chosen newsreel clips, the history of mass incarceration in the United States is laid out in great detail.
“So let’s look at the statistics,” President Obama says. “The United States is home to 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners. Think about that.” What he doesn’t add, but this documentary makes clear, is that most of those prisoners are people of color. Locked away and criminalized in many cases simply because of the color of their skin.
Some of the talking heads include Jelani Cobb, Angela Davis, Henry Louis Gates, David Keene, James Kilgore, Newt Gingrich, Michelle Alexander, Sen. Cory Booker and many others.
Bit by bit, we see the story beginning with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, through the Jim Crow era, through the effect of the film The Birth of a Nation, through the war on drugs and the law and order political movement to modern times when ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) set the stage for the CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) to have a massive profit making machine in the prison industrial complex. The film finishes with a look at the Black Lives Matter movement.
13th talks about how companies like WalMart and JC Penney that used prisoners to make consumer goods have begun to draw back because of the criticism the CCA has received. The CCA responded by releasing prisoners to their homes while wearing ankle monitors. So the CCA makes its money now from monitoring, not imprisonment. But nothing has really changed.
The film talks about how former prisoners are refused jobs and refused their civil rights, particularly the right to vote.
The mythology of black men as criminals is explored over and over again with cogent explanations as to how this stereotype was instituted and maintained in American culture. Over and over again the word ‘CRIMINAL’ fills the screen as the stereotype is propagandized. It’s a powerful code word that represents meaning in every part of this documentary.
I know they won’t, but every American should watch this film. If you think watching it will make you uncomfortable, all the more reason to watch it.
As depressing and upsetting as it is to see the ways mass incarceration and systemic racism became institutionalized in America, it’s equally upsetting to contemplate all the steps that must be taken to undo and change that. Big money interests will fight every reform, you can be sure of that. It will take political will and citizen support. Watch the film. That’s step 1.
Watch the trailer for 13th here.