13th ★★★


Ava DuVernay makes a compelling argument that, pace Boots Riley and The Coup, it's the 13th that's a broke amendment. Tracing the history of a particularly pernicious clause in said amendment, DuVernay and a series of activists and scholars make a historically grounded claim that is borne out by contemporary evidence: incarceration is slavery's evil twin, and it was always designed to be.

In the era of the prison-industrial complex and in particular the increasing privatization of prisons and prison services, how far removed are we from the quaint idea of a convicted criminal "paying [his / her] debt to society"? Under the present conditions, that "debt" can never be repaid, because the very existence of black bodies is the debt, a massive source of labor power that must be absorbed. At the same time, the prison population cannot be afforded a place in the "legitimate" capitalist economy.

And that is just the materialist side of the equation. That does not even begin to touch upon racist fear and hatred, which is the psychological engine driving the mass incarceration of black men.

13th does a fine job articulating the historical and economic roots of the present crisis. How did the U.S. become the premiere carceral nation in the Western world? How have African-Americans, who comprise around 13% of the American population, come to represent just under half of America's prison population? DuVernay's film is often a bit blunt in its presentation of its data -- it is more of a teaching tool than a piece of documentary cinema -- but she draws on credible, verifiable sources as well as expert testimony from some of the nation's leading intellectuals. As a presentation of vital information, 13th is unimpeachable.

DuVernay is to be commended for keeping her project trained on a specific social problem, which allows her to provide the concrete historical grounding that is almost always lacking in discussions of our racist penal system. By not allowing 13th to become mired in ideological debates, DuVernay is able to present her very best argument, partly by affording great minds such as Angela Davis the space to drop serious knowledge.

On the other hand, I do wonder what the film might have accomplished with a slightly broader focus. The current population of African-American women inmates is all but ignored here, along with the increasing numbers of Latino/a folks facing long-term incarceration. These questions fall outside the precise purview of 13th, but to at least acknowledge them in passing would inform the viewer that the problem and its history is multi-faceted, and requires an intersectional activism if one hopes to affect radical change.

These are quibbles, of course. No document can address all subjects without weakening the acuity of its analysis. And of course, activists and independent media makers have been addressing these subjects for decades, without the exposure of a streaming deal with Netflix. But I hope that the solid example of DuVernay's 13th prompts other high profile media makers to take up the challenge, as well as to support those smaller activist collectives who have been working in the trenches, examining the prison system from a multitude of viewpoints.