Reviewed Media Source: 13th
Producers: Ava Duvernay, Howard Barish, & Spencer Averick
Release Date: October 7, 2016
The documentary 13th dived into the underlying roots which have established a long road of unequal treatment towards African Americans in our society and our criminal justice system. In this documentary, there were multiple statistics shown with harsh and troubling numbers about the incarceration of black men, and incarceration in general in the United States. It opens by explaining how the United States is responsible for a quarter of incarcerated people in the world, but only holds 5% of the world’s population. This opens the documentary with a very eye-opening statistic, as it continues, the focus on African Americans reveals the disturbing incentives of some of the leaders in our country. Focusing on the 13th amendment which abolished slavery was the goal when describing the loophole made within this amendment. A loophole that allows for members of society to still participate in free labor, only if they are convicted of a crime. This became a new way to legally enslave a group of people without directly saying that was what was happening. This only allowed for a new version of the same problems to be used and would contribute to new ways to incarcerate people of color.
This documentary touches on numerous sources that reveal old American racism. For example, the movie “The Birth of a Nation” gives an insight into the myths established about people of color and their relationship to crime and rape. This was a major influence on the concept of black guilt completely and shows a piece of history that contributed to that ideology. Shocking statistics such as every 1/4 black serving time in prison at a point in their life is just another one of the surprising facts stated in this documentary. The speakers explained how slavery went from a business to a legal method of punishment for criminals. Which also provides large amounts of profit for private and state prisons. There are points in which the speakers address the fear that had been put into the public about African Americans, including how different presidents played a part in these fears. Policies that were focused on areas of low socioeconomic status such as mandatory sentences only generated more money for bail and incarceration firms. The information about ALECS’s participation in law-making was also addressed which brought forth concerns about laws made to benefit and bring money in for corporate members. This documentary explains the path in which African Americans have been set up to fail and how policies and ideologies put into place have only fueled and targeted these incentives.
This documentary ties into our class discussion on mass incarceration in many ways. It supports many topics we have discussed such as the presumption of guilt or systematic racism. It has only supported many of our views on these topics and has further explained the origin in which they began. When we talk about the presumption of guilt, this has been a problem built off the years of a narrative that only portrayed African Americans as dangerous criminals. The idea of white people being better than black people have shined through the continuous targeting of this race in our criminal justice system. The ideology of white supremacy survived the civil war and shows in ways that are evident today (Davis, 2017). Systematic racism was addressed multiple times throughout the documentary, and this helped to explain how even when labeled as free, African Americans have never been free in this country. Rather than building a new system our policies and laws only contributed to maintaining white privilege. The racial inequality produced by mass incarceration has been influenced by the levers of law and political control (Davis, 2017). Politicians and policymakers created a system that would come off as being tough on crime while it aids a new way to get free labor from these individuals. This is another form of slavery and we can see how much it impacted incarceration rates because it was not just about public safety. It was more about the potential profit, regardless of the inequality shown. According to Davis (2017), “The birth of the United States was defined by the willingness to exploit people of color despite vaunted norms, values, and principles of equality” (p. 6). We discussed how black people are set up to fail often because they are put back into the general public with the inability to participate in normal activities such as certain jobs, college education at times, or even the right to vote. This goes back to when slavery was first abolished, something I learned from this documentary. These slaves were also put out into a world they were unprepared for because of years of being a second-class citizen to white people. These same practices can be seen in our system today because without examining the destruction that has been done, they are only set out to live a fate that ultimately has been chosen for them. This documentary brought forth connections of different topics we discussed, it helped to inform people of a criminal justice system and government which has continued to benefit from the oppression of African Americans. The publics’ beliefs about how the U.S has triumphed from racially pernicious practices, aids the racial status quo and reflects a natural ordering rather than a structured hierarchy. (Wacquant, 2002).
I personally watched this documentary when it first was released, and it unleashed a lot of feelings and questions for me. I was unaware of how much racism impacted the incarceration of African Americans. I knew the basics, but I did not know how deep it was and how much of a role our law and policymakers played. I believe that my classmates should watch this because it goes into the depth of the footprint racism has had on our criminal justice system and the laws that have been established. The summary I gave doesn’t even compare to the amount of information and theories addressed in this documentary. To fully understand how we got to the place we are now with mass incarceration, I believe this is the best documentary to truly explain that. Diving into the roots of this country is the only way to understand what steps led us here.
Davis, A. J. (Ed.) (2017). Policing the Black man: Arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment. Vintage.
Wacquant, L. (2002). From slavery to mass incarceration. New Left Review, 13.