13 April 2018
13th is a 2016 American documentary by director Ava DuVernay. The film explores the "intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States;" it is titled after the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which freed the slaves and prohibited slavery (unless as punishment for a crime). DuVernay contends that slavery has been perpetuated in practices since the end of the American Civil War through such actions as criminalizing behavior and enabling police to arrest poor freedmen and force them to work for the state under convict leasing; suppression of African Americans by disenfranchisement, lynchings and Jim Crow; politicians declaring a war on drugs that weigh more heavily on minority communities and, by the late 20th century, mass incarceration of people of color in the United States. She examines the prison-industrial complex and the emerging detention-industrial complex, demonstrating how much money is being made by corporations from such incarcerations. 13th has garnered acclaim from film critics. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 89th Academy Awards, and won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special at the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards.
The film begins with an audio clip of former President Barack Obama stating that the US has 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of the world's prisoners. This film features several prominent activists, academics, politicians from "both sides of the aisle," and public figures, such as Angela Davis, Bryan Stevenson, Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, Cory Booker, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and others. It deeply explores the economic history of slavery and post-Civil War racist legislation and practices that replaced it as "systems of racial control" and forced labor from the years after the abolition of slavery to the present. Southern states criminalized minor offenses, arresting freedmen and forcing them to work when they could not pay fines; institutionalizing this approach as convict leasing (which created an incentive to criminalize more behavior). They disenfranchised most blacks across the South at the turn of the 20th century, excluding them from the political system (including juries), at the same time that lynching of blacks by white mobs reached a peak in these decades. In addition to such violence, Jim Crow legislation was passed by Democrats to legalize segregation and suppress minorities, forcing them into second-class status. Following the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s that restored civil rights, the film notes the Republican Party's appeal to southern white conservatives, including the claim to be the party to fight the war on crime and war on drugs, which began to include mandatory, lengthy sentencing. A new wave of minority suppression began, reaching African Americans and others in the northern, mid-western and western cities where many had migrated in earlier decades. After their presidential candidates lost to Republicans, Democratic politicians such as Bill Clinton joined the war on drugs. As a result, from the early 1970s to the present, the rate of incarceration and the number of people in prisons has climbed dramatically in the United States, although the rate of crime has continued to decline since the late 20th century. As late as the 2016 presidential election, certain politicians worked to generate fear of crime, claiming high rates in New York City, for instance, which was not true. The documentary says crime lower overall than it has been in decades, but Republican candidates are said to have raised it to create fear. Private prison contractors had entered the market to satisfy demand as arrests and sentences increased, forming an independent group with its own economic incentives to criminalize minor activities and lengthen sentences in order to keep prisons full. Politicians and businessmen in rural areas encouraged construction of prisons to supply local jobs, and they also have had incentives to keep prisons full. Decades later, studies have shown that private prisons are no more efficient and are often more abusive than those run by the federal or state governments.The federal Bureau of Prisons announced in 2016 its intention to stop contracting with private providers for prison services. The over-incarceration of adults has severely damaged generations of black and minority families and their children. The film explores the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council, backed by corporations, that has provided Republican state and federal legislators with draft legislation to support the prison-industrial complex. Only after some of the relationships were revealed did corporations like Wal-Mart and others receive criticism and drop out of the organization. Many businesses continue to make huge profits from prisons, including Securus, which provides telephone services at high rates and Aramark which provides food services that are substandard. The film explores the demonization of minority poor through these decades to serve political ends, contributing to unrealistic fears of minorities by whites and to persistent problems of police brutality against minority communities. In the 21st century, the regularity of fatal police shootings of unarmed minorities in apparently minor confrontations has been demonstrated by videos taken by bystanders and by the increasing use of cams in police cars or worn by officers; DuVernay ends the film with a graphic procession of recent videos of fatal shootings of blacks by police, what Manohla Dargis describes as, after the previous discussion, having the effect of "a piercing, keening cry."
The film was written by Ava DuVernay, who wrote and directed Selma (2015), and Spencer Averick. Averick also edited the film. Produced and filmed in secrecy, 13th was revealed only after it was announced as the opening film for the 2016 New York Film Festival, the first documentary ever to open the festival.
The film was released on October 7, 2016 on Netflix. The companion piece 13th: A Conversation with Oprah Winfrey & Ava DuVernay was released on January 26, 2017 in the United States and on January 31, 2017 worldwide on the service.
On Rotten Tomatoes the film has an approval rating of 96% based on 79 reviews, with an average rating of 8.8/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "13th strikes at the heart of America's tangled racial history, offering observations as incendiary as they are calmly controlled." On Metacritic the film has a score of 90 out of 100, based on 23 critics, indicating "universal acclaim". Manohla Dargis of the New York Times praised what she called the power of DuVernay's film and its meticulous marshaling of facts. She says, summarizing the film: "The United States did not just criminalize a select group of black people. It criminalized black people as a whole, a process that, in addition to destroying untold lives, effectively transferred the guilt for slavery from the people who perpetuated it to the very people who suffered through it." Peter Travers of Rolling Stone awarded the film four stars and named it one of the best films of 2016.