Reconsidering the impacts of the United States prison system and learning about post-abolition racism is a critical part of antiracism. The Netflix film “13th” is an eye-opening examination of the history of incarceration. UConn’s “Welcome Back Programming,” run by the Learning Community Program, hosted a Teleparty event through Netflix for a screening of the hard-hitting documentary on Friday, Jan. 28.
Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th” takes a hard look at the history of the United States prison system and its ties to slavery. Researchers, advocates and victims of the prison system discuss how Black Americans, particularly Black men, are disproportionately impacted and unfairly targeted by law enforcement and lawmakers alike.
Bryan Stevenson and Angela Davis, among other prominent figures, are featured as interviewees throughout the film. Each person brings a unique perspective to the table, creating a well-rounded discussion.
The title itself is a reference to the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which outlawed slavery, except as a punishment for crimes. The film examines the historical implications of this caveat, proving that the modern-day prison system is an extension of slavery. “13th” delves into the social and political actions that have been weaponized against Black Americans since the amendment’s ratification.
The documentary focuses heavily on the prison industrial complex: the idea that prisons, since they operate as companies, benefit from being filled as much as possible. The drastic increase in incarceration can be largely attributed to this system.
Aside from the disproportionate incarceration of Black Americans, the oppression persists even after release from prison. The film discusses the long term impacts of being convicted of a felony, which include the revocation of voting rights.
“So many aspects of the old Jim Crow are suddenly legal again once you’ve been branded a felon,” said Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” “And so it seems that in America, we haven’t so much ended racial caste, but simply redesigned it.”
The film makes clear the abolition of slavery through the Thirteenth Amendment was not the end of the fight. Instead, over the years, Black Americans have been victims of various permutations of slavery, under the names of “Jim Crow laws” or “the prison-industrial complex.”
“People say all the time, ‘Well, I don’t understand how people could have tolerated slavery?’ … ‘If I was living at that time I would never have tolerated anything like that … And the truth is, we are living in this time, and we are tolerating it.”BRYAN STEVENSON.
“People say all the time, ‘Well, I don’t understand how people could have tolerated slavery?’ … ‘If I was living at that time I would never have tolerated anything like that,’” said Bryan Stevenson. “And the truth is, we are living in this time, and we are tolerating it.”
The film also demonstrates oppression can take an even more insidious form, particularly through language and association, rather than outright discriminatory policies. Phrases such as “super-predator” arose, most often referencing young Black men. These labels, used by the media, dehumanized Black Americans and portrayed them as criminals that should be feared.
“The opposite of criminalization is humanization,” said Jelani Cobb, writer and former UConn educator. “That’s the one thing I hope people will understand.”
DuVernay, director and producer of “13th,” also directed feature films “Selma” and “A Wrinkle in Time.” The documentary was nominated for “Best Documentary Feature” at the Oscars in 2017. DuVernay became the first Black woman nominated as a director in this category.
The DuVernay test, similar to the Bechdel test, is named for her. This test shows that characters of color are often included in the media solely as “background” for white characters and their story arcs.
Her documentary combines personal stories and statistics into an important discussion of mass incarceration that proves slavery never truly ended with the Thirteenth Amendment and still needs to be fought against today.
Thumbnail photo courtesy of @13THFilm on Twitter.