Ava DuVernay's '13th' Explores The Evolution Of The U.S. Prison System

The film powerfully chronicles the exploitation and incarceration of black lives in America.

If there’s one thing that Ava DuVernay is more passionate about than the present-day reality of black life in America, it’s her push to help people understand the past so America’s sordid history in mistreating black Americans isn’t repeated.

The director makes this clear in her stunning new documentary “13th.” The film, which debuts on Netflix Friday, explores how the 13th amendment in the U.S. constitution which abolished slavery also came with a loophole that was exploited and eventually led to the current mass incarceration of black people in America.

“The 13th Amendment has a clause that is a criminality clause,” DuVernay explained in an interview with The Huffington Post. “It says that everyone is free in this country. No one can be held as a slave... ‘except as for punishment for a crime.’”

DuVernay's "13th" documents how black life has been impacted by America's racism.
DuVernay's "13th" documents how black life has been impacted by America's racism.

DuVernay said she felt the 13th Amendment was worth examining because “most people don’t know about that loop-hole,” she said. “We have no context for the current moment if we don’t know where we came from.”

As it stands, America’s prison system accounts for 25 percent of the world’s inmates, 40 percent of whom are black, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The film ― which weaves together the voices of expert historians and activists like Angela Davis and The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander, among others ― explains America’s historical treatment of black people. They explore how black people were once brutalized as slaves to the warped reality of the reconstruction era to the injustices of Jim Crow to present-day policing tactics that have aggressively targeted black Americans and profited from their incarceration.

“You can’t talk about change if you don’t know what we’re changing,” DuVernay said, emphasizing why understanding our past is crucial to our outlook on our present. “What we need to change is our overall collective thinking about this moment. That’s tied to [our] past... we don’t know what we’re talking about if you don’t know the history of it. It’s so important.”

Activist Angela Davis talks to DuVernay about the issue of mass incarceration in "13th."
Activist Angela Davis talks to DuVernay about the issue of mass incarceration in "13th."

However, it was within the last 50 years that America has seen its biggest boom in the incarceration of black men and women. America’s prison population stood at 200,000 in 1972 and has since exploded to hold a record of 2.3 million inmates as of 2008, according to the NAACP.

It’s a tremendous spike, much of which can be credited to the aggressive laws proposed during President Richard Nixon’s term in office during the 1970s and further carried out by Ronald Reagan. The two Republican presidents introduced the “War On Drugs,” which not only came with discriminative laws that over-policed, targeted and criminalized black men but also introduced racist rhetoric that wildly painted and perceived all black men to be misfits and criminals. This crippling stigma was later reinforced by former President Bill Clinton, who activated the 1994 Crime Bill, which prompted his wife and current Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton to make a controversial comment that egregiously described all young black men as “super predators.” All of this is powerfully documented in the film.

“This narrative isn’t just in our institutions, it’s being pushed by media, mainstream media system, where we find the labels of ‘criminal, super predator,’” Malkia Cyril, the executive director at the Center of Media Justice and whose also featured in the film, told The Huffington Post.

Cyril explained how important it is to combat this narrative by pushing a new conversation that humanizes black people and demands respect and accountability. She gives credit to black storytellers and the Black Lives Matter movement for speaking out against injustice because to her, “there’s nothing more important to saving black lives than to telling the story and to getting that story right.”

With her film, DuVernay both documents the boom in America’s prison system and the profits corporations have earned as a result of it. It’s a riveting and infuriating look at how human capital is exploited and mistreated as shown in the heartbreaking case of Kalief Browder, a 22-year-old black man who committed suicide in June 2015 after being imprisoned for three years at New York City jail complex, Rikers Island without being convicted of a crime.

In addition to Browder’s death, DuVernay powerfully highlights the police killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown to help give context around what led to the launch of the Black Lives Matter movement. She also chronicles many of the deaths that followed, which brought momentum and helped to justify why America simply can’t afford to be silent about the country’s ongoing issue of the racially-targeted police killings of black men.

“This is not a Black Lives Matter moment, it’s a movement,” DuVernay said. “Hopefully, by the end of the film you have a greater understanding of how this moment came to be, and how it’s transforming into a movement.”

Check out the full trailer for DuVernay’s documentary, “13th,” below.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed when the “War On Drugs” was introduced. It was first declared by President Richard Nixon in the 1970s.

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