Ava DuVernay’s 13th is a documentary about how the Thirteenth Amendment led to mass incarceration in the United States, but it’s also a gorgeous, evocative, and maddening exploration of words: of their power, their roots, their permanence. It’s about those who wield those words and those made to kneel by them. Many Americans by now are familiar with the coded language of the country’s racial hegemony. Some shun certain words while others make anthems out of them.
The film opens with an analysis of the eponymous amendment: “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.” 13th then spends over an hour and a half tracing the path from the clause between those two commas to the 2.2 million prisoners in the American justice system.
13th, out Friday on Netflix, compels viewers to sit upright, pay attention, and interrogate words in their most naked form as they’re analyzed and unpacked by DuVernay’s subjects, who include Angela Davis, Charles Rangel, and Henry Louis Gates. Sometimes the film confronts words in seemingly contradictory pairs: person/property, slave/freed person, labor force/prison workers. At other times it wrestles with oxymorons that target black Americans: truth in sentencing, war on drugs, tough on crime, law and order, minor crimes.
Premised as a historical survey that maps the genetic link between slavery and today’s prison-industrial complex, 13th explodes the “mythology of black criminality” as The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb at one point in the film refers to the successive and successful measures undertaken by political authorities to disempower African Americans over the last three centuries. The academic and civil-rights advocate Michelle Alexander unpacks how the rhetorical war started by Richard Nixon and continued by Ronald Reagan escalated into a literal war, a “nearly genocidal” one. The Southern Strategy is unmasked as a political calculation that decimated black neighborhoods but won the southern white vote.