13th opens with a voiceover of Barack Obama. In audio from a speech, he says, “The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Think about that.” This new documentary by Ava DuVernay’s makes you think about mass incarceration in America and the corporate exploitation of the free labor it creates, but not before a thorough recounting of how the U.S. became the world’s biggest jailer. The United States’ prison population topped out at 300,000 in 1972, but less than 50 years later that number has skyrocketed to 2.3 million, giving the United States the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
13th pictures the greater issue of the problem of mass incarceration in America, but its title is a reference to the so-called “loophole” in the 13th Amendment that has allowed for a new form of modern slavery to take root in the dark heart of America’s incarceration culture:
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.
The first major prison boom in the United States came immediately following the Civil War, when former slaves were arrested en masse to provide the South with the same free, black laborers they’d built their pre-war economies on. Former slaves were often arrested for minor crimes, and smeared with a fear-inducing propaganda campaign that raised the specter of black criminality – a campaign elevated to high art in the form of D.W. Griffith’s notorious film The Birth of a Nation.
13th traces the evolution of free black labor from the days of slavery, to the KKK terrorism immediately following the Civil War, to the separatism of the Jim Crow South, to the institutional racism that makes the contemporary slavery of incarcerated workers possible in the United States today.
The modern era of mass incarceration started in the 1970s. The Nixon administration instituted “law and order” policies designed to push back against the civil unrest caused by the Black Power movement and groups like the Black Panther Party. Nixon coined the term “War on Drugs,” and in a 22-year-old interview that was published in Harper’s earlier this year, Nixon’s Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs, John Ehrlichman, admitted that they created a false panic about drugs to attack their perceived enemies:
"We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities," Ehrlichman said. "We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."
Roughly the first half of 13th outlines the history of mass incarceration in the U.S. while the second half of the film tackles the corporations and legislation that have made the contemporary incarcerated labor industry possible – throwing considerable shade at Nashville’s own Corrections Corporation of America in the process. Ava DuVernay’s movie is an exhaustive exploration of the history of institutional racism at the heart of American justice, but it’s not likely that the documentary will do more than preach to its own choir. The history presented here is fascinating for viewers who already have an interest in these topics, but the talking-heads-and-archival-footage construction is anything but original, and I could imagine viewers who are less-than-passionate about these subjects losing interest. DuVernay does add a simmering soundtrack that includes tracks from Nina Simone and Public Enemy, but the overall presentation is like any number of documentaries we’ve seen before. 13th is a damning documentary, but it’s not a groundbreaking film.
That said, it’s a timely voice during a turbulent season when the Black Lives Matter movement is at the center of a national discussion about race and crime, and when the Republican candidate for president is employing many of the same racist tactics the GOP has long sanctioned in his bid for the White House. In fact, one of 13th’s most valuable revelations is the context it creates around Donald Trump’s campaign, revealing that the rogue firebrand is really just the all too logical outcome for a political party that has been destroyed by its own pedaling of racism and fear.
13th is currently streaming on Netflix.