13th: A Necessary Documentary

Rose Heredia

Contributing Writer


The first line uttered in Ava Duvernay’s new Netflix documentary “13th” is a statistic taken from President Obama’s comments during a 2015 NAACP conference. Let this sink in: “America is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.” Once it has, prepare to discover and delve deeper into learning about the prison industrial complex, the criminal justice system and how its roots trace to the 13th amendment in this urgent documentary.

For anybody who fell asleep in history class, the 13th amendment states: “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.” Although the slaves were freed in 1865, many black Americans were quickly jailed for benign crimes like vagrancy or loitering, benefitting white society by providing much-needed free labor in the post-Civil War Reconstruction years.  

With so much going on today with the Black Lives Matter movement and ongoing police mistreatment, there are too many similarities from the 1860s until now. Yes, segregation is no longer legal, but communities still self-segregate. Familiar with White Flight? The migration of middle class white people moving from their neighborhoods that had people of color moving in? That was another way for communities to push back against integration.

It’s hard to discuss this documentary without bringing up the War on Crime and the War on Drugs, both of which started with Richard Nixon’s pledge to be a “law and order” president. This tough stance on the drug crime snowballed with each successive president until Bill Clinton passed the three strikes law, which jailed many non-violent (mostly people of color) offenders. Clinton also passed the 1994 Crime Bill, which provided funding to build more prisons and helped facilitate widespread police militarization.

The documentary is filled with devastating statistics, from the amount of prisoners in the 1900s to today’s staggering numbers. Directed by Ava DuVernay, known for the film “Selma,” one would think this film would be biased. It’s quite hard to dismiss hard facts on how the justice system was set up and has affected communities of color since the 1860s. The news footage from the Civil Rights movement and from present day mirror each other to a tee. The Black Lives Matter Movement is our present day Civil Rights movement for a change. Historians, professors, activists and even lawyers of all ethnicities weigh in on the history from then to present day.

Upon finishing this documentary, my first thought was about the intended audience. Who is this documentary for? People of color? Non-people of color? After letting the film wash over me, and seeing the large amount of people of color that have lost their lives unfairly in the past couple of months, nay, years, the answer was clear. This film is for everyone who wants to understand the Black Lives Matter movement, and the origins of harsh sentencings and police brutality towards people of color. It’ll provide the knowledge and foundation to learn what it feels like to live as a person of color in this country.

This documentary will enrage you and might bring you to tears. It’s a film that will hopefully incite, change or provide important context to conversations about race. It’s a film that makes you think why, as Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, says, “We are living [in] this time and we are tolerating [injustice].” Perhaps this documentary will wake us up and force us to stop tolerating bigotry and discrimination.

Photo Credit: Netflix


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