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December 11, 2017

‘13th’ is an eye opening documentary about the US incarceration system

An image from Ava DuVernay's "13th," a smart, powerful and disturbing documentary. (Netflix/TNS)

An image from Ava DuVernay’s ’13th,’ a smart, powerful and disturbing documentary. (Netflix/TNS)

Ava DuVernay had some decisions to make.

The writer-director’s 2015 film “Selma” about the tribulations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, was a major success. She became the first Black woman director to have her film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and it grossed over $50 million in the United States.

Paramount Pictures distributed “Selma,” and in the wake of its impact more major Hollywood studios came knocking on DuVernay’s door. When Marvel approached DuVernay to direct the upcoming “Black Panther” film, she was put into the position of either giving up creative control for the sake of franchise recognition and money or going off and working on another project of her own choosing.

Her new Netflix documentary “13th” is the fruit of the path she decided to take. With American politics in a particularly tumultuous place and the American people equally divided over important issues, DuVernay decided to make an intellectual work that can make a difference. Her decision was incredibly brave and is among the many reasons to delve into a documentary that lays out important issues regarding the American incarceration system.

“13th” analyzes the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. These final conditional words are key to the documentary, as it explains how this exception to the abolishment of slavery gave rise to the opportunity to exploit the legal system and frequently target Black people in order to, essentially, enslave them. This pattern of specifically targeting Black people in the U.S. as criminals has remained the case in today’s incarceration system.

The documentary explores why someone like myself, a young white male, is six times less likely to go to prison then my Black peers. “13th” brings in an array of knowledgeable scholars, activists and politicians on the subject of the American prison system to analyze specific time periods of United States history and how the targeting of Black people as criminals has been something deeply engrained in our country’s past.

“13th” also looks at D.W. Griffith’s infamous “The Birth of a Nation,” which heavily propagandized the “myth of Black criminality.” Horrible yet real imagery evidencing the result of this mentality is then shown, including whites standing proudly before lynched Black men in photographs from this earlier time period. “13th” does not sugarcoat any aspect of American history as it takes the viewer through each embarrassing decade of minute progress toward ceasing to stereotype Black people as criminals.

As the war on drugs takes hold over America with Nixon’s declaration in the 1970s, DuVernay doesn’t even have to make a concerted effort to prove that this was in essence a war on Black people throughout the country. Thanks to incredible editing work courtesy of Spencer Averick, the film weaves in a plethora of historical footage and text to lay out the truths behind the rampant political fabrications.

There is so much history to analyze and so much controversy to dig through when it comes to the American prison system. The fact that “13th” successfully brings to light the sad prejudiced state of incarceration in under two hours is an incredible feat. The film has a relentless pace, jumping from decade to decade and issue to issue with such force that by the film’s end viewers will feel determined to seek a better and more equal future for all peoples in this country.

William Plotnick can be reached at wplotnick@umass.edu.

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