In telling the highly complex story of how a loophole in the 13th Amendment is weaponized to keep black Americans enslaved, the quiet, riveting power in 13th lies with director Ava DuVernay’s impulses towards simplicity and concision. Through archival footage and interviews with academics, activists and other experts, DuVernay sticks to focus: since 1864, the Constitution has guaranteed Americans freedom from slavery or indentured servitude, “except as punishment for a crime”; immediately after the 13th Amendment was passed by Congress, authorities began arresting black Americans for petty “crimes” like loitering, putting many former slaves right back into the “custody” of the state. And there is now ample evidence that this practice has been fine-tuned and made more sophisticated over the course of over 150 years, to the point where the current mass incarceration of black and brown people is a warped manifestation of modern-day slavery.
The aforementioned evidence is indisputable, a history represented with real life footage contextualized by leading minds like Jelani Cobb, Angela Davis, Cory Booker and Deborah Small. Its narrative goes chronologically, from the most blatant racism of images from D.W. Griffith’s appalling Birth of a Nation and Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizards shrieking against integration, through the more advanced dogwhistles of the War on Drugs and comments from both current presidential candidates, who have each at certain points played into and inflamed racial fears. Covering the latter topic, DuVernay splices in archival footage of both Hillary Clinton’s “Superpredator” comment and Donald Trump in 1989 vehemently advocating for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, who were exonerated by DNA evidence (it is worth reiterating that, the same day as Trump’s “pussy” statements to Billy Bush leaked, he also said that he still believes the Central Park Five are guilty, in the face of their scientifically proven, unequivocal innocence). Trump’s subtle racism is not at all an American anomaly, as 13th shows, particularly within institutions of power.