The past couple years have seen a creative outpouring of works, mostly by African Americans, that anatomize the systemic discrimination and violence perpetrated against black people since this country’s inception. These include books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad; TV series like OJ: Made in America and the remake of Roots; and movies like 12 Years a Slave, The Central Park 5, The House I Live In and Ava DuVernay’s majestic Selma. DuVernay’s latest film 13th, a feature-length documentary, is an important addition to that lineup.
Building her case as methodically and irrefutably as a crack trial lawyer, DuVernay documents the forces behind the criminalization, incarceration and murder of black Americans, from the institutionalized violence and dehumanization of slavery to the dog-whistle politics of the present. The experts who provide most of the facts and analysis include some you might expect, like Alexander, but most are less familiar or expected. Newt Gingrich, of all people, has some wise and insightful things to say about the intersection between racism and mass incarceration, as do a number of people whose credentials include the fact that they are, as their title cards put it, “formerly incarcerated.”
Songs used to introduce new topics—most of them rap, like Killer Mike’s “Reagan”—spell things out just as clearly as the talking heads. Particularly pungent quotes or lyrics are occasionally typed out, big enough to read even on a small screen, to underline a point. So are telling figures, like the increase in the number of prisoners in the US every decade, starting with 1970-80, which is shocking to see even if you were already aware of the trend. Many of the archival materials are iconic, like the photos of lynchings and Emmett Till’s pulpy face in his casket and the viral videos of recent shootings by police of unarmed black men. But DuVernay also provides context for some cornerstones of racism that have been hiding in plain sight, like the poisonous language hidden in the Constitutional amendment that gives the film its title.
Touching briefly on some political and historical milestones, like the Great Migration and Jim Crow, and slowing down to examine others more closely, the film traces the thread that knits together everything from the so-called drug wars and war on crime to the role of ALEC and private corporations in stuffing privatized prisons full of people, most of them nonwhite, who boost profits both by filling cells and by providing free labor. It slows down most to explore the role played by plea bargaining in our criminal justice system, which DuVernay had envisioned as the topic of the film before her research inspired her to broaden its scope.
Like the archival footage DuVernay shows, most of the facts and figures she cites have long been available to anyone who sought them out. But 13th provides a valuable civic service by weaving them all together into a clear and detailed portrait of racism in America, which anyone with a Netflix subscription can see.