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.
Among so much bleak evidence of the carceral state as premeditated, calculated system of racial oppression—evidence which Soraya Nadia McDonald wrote “proves black people are not crazy”—there is not much that’s uplifting here, beyond the facts that a filmmaker as insightful and talented as DuVernay made it and that it got distribution in both theaters and on Netflix, hopefully leading to a wider awakening to the need for change. But certain points provide a bit of hope, as when Henry Louis Gates describes the way Civil Rights flipped the widespread demonization of black people as inherently criminal, a project that began in the 1860s and continues today. “Being arrested by white people was your worst nightmare. Still is, for many African Americans,” he says. “So what did they do? They voluntarily defined a movement around getting arrested. They turned it on its head.”
One of the film’s starkest moments comes towards the end, when DuVernay splices footage of Trump rallies in which older white men bully and assault young black women and men, alongside archival footage of a mob of white men bullying and assaulting young black women and men. The older footage is from the Civil Rights era, and the parallel is indubitable; Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric narrates it, his litany of “they” and “thems” nearly as stinging as epithets. “I love the old days,” he says, over a 1960s era frame of white cops beating black protestors. “You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.” Cut to a Civil Rights era image of a black woman being carried out on a stretcher; cut to current-day footage of a white Trump supporter saying, “The next time we see him, we might have to kill him.”
The direct link between lynchings and other hate crimes is not precisely the underlying point here, though it’s part and parcel of it of it, serving to underscore the way the country’s virulent racism is the root of police brutality, the root of mass incarceration and, ultimately, the root of civil unrest. It contextualizes not just mass incarceration but how it’s all intertwined, including the popularity and importance and ongoing impact of Black Lives Matter. “That’s what Black Lives Matter is really about,” says Cobb. “It’s about whose lives we recognize as valuable.”
With the weekend’s political revelations—that Donald Trump had once bragged about sexually assaulting women—it’s been a welcome if small relief to watch at least some of the Republican party abandon him. But it’s also important to focus on his comments on the Central Park Five and the more than 15 months of overt and subtextual racism on the trail before that. As 13th names the creeping ways we’ve gotten to this point, it’s clear that it’s going to be up to we, the people, to agitate to fix it.