Media Minute: “13th”

Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th” is garnering critical acclaim and will be in the running for Best Documentary Feature at the upcoming 89th Oscars ceremony Sunday, Feb. 26.

The Netflix original documentary examines mass incarceration in the U.S. prison system and how it disproportionately affects African Americans. The film tracks the American prison population from nearly 300,000 in 1972 to the 2.3 million today—the highest incarceration rate in the world numerically and proportionately.

In terms of prison population, the country with the next highest number of incarcerated citizens is China at 1.5 million. To put this in perspective, this means 118 out of 100,000 Chinese are in prison, compared to 737 out of 100,000 Americans.

DuVernay begins her film with a jarring quote from former President Obama: “So let’s look at the statistics. The United States is home to five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Think about that.”

“13th” seeks a better understanding of America’s history to answer this very problem facing us today.

The title of the documentary alludes to the 13th Amendment to the Unites States Constitution, which officially abolished slavery: “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 film argues the clause regarding crime can be used as a loophole, meaning anyone who is criminalized by the state can legally be punished with forms of “slavery” or “involuntary servitude.”

This loophole was in fact exploited immediately after slavery was abolished, with newly liberated African Americans being arrested en masse for minor crimes such as loitering or vagrancy (homelessness).

DuVernay illustrates how this loophole helps explain the explosion of mass incarceration.

Armed with statistics, video archives, an array of historians, activists, politicians and scholars to speak about the topics, DuVernay delicately connects the dots from the post-civil war era to the current overhauled prison systems.

Between segregation, Jim Crow laws, the war on drugs, Nixon’s southern strategy, get-tough-on-crime policies, mass criminalization and politics in general, DuVernay shows how America’s racial history is tied to all of it.

The film finishes by spotlighting contemporary movements such as Black Lives Matter along with issues such as police brutality and hateful political rhetoric. 

For those who are unaware of the relationship between race and mass incarceration, the documentary may seem uncomfortable or surprising. But its message is relevant enough to make it more important than ever.

Understanding the issue of mass incarceration and the current criminal justice system is the first step in reforming it.