In 1970, there were 300,000 people in the American prison system. Today, that number is a staggering 2.3 million. The United States prison industrial complex is an enormous, many-headed beast that houses almost a fourth of the world’s prison population, disproportionately affecting black and brown people, and trapping U.S. citizens in a cycle of injustice.
It’s also something that unstoppable director Ava DuVernay feels strongly about. “I grew up in Compton, and it was always around me,” DuVernay told me. “I was immersed in aggressive police presence, immersed in being very aware of the criminal justice system, people on parole and probation and locked up.” So when Netflix approached her to make a documentary about anything she wanted, she knew exactly what she was going to tackle.
13th is a chronological roadmap of America’s legacy of black oppression, from slavery to Jim Crow laws to the War on Crime to the War on Drugs to the 1994 Crime Bill to today’s prison system. The film highlights the political forces that generated the underlying current of fear and anxiety towards black people that allowed these initiatives to succeed, and how these elements have contributed to America’s mass incarceration problem.
“It’s not just something that started happening recently,” Kevin Gannon, Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and professor of history at Grand View University, told me. “This is a different incarnation of the same structures of inequality that have been present with the United States since before it was the United States.”
“We need to first deal with the crisis not only of mass incarceration, but of anti-black racism that has festered in this country for centuries,” Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice, who also appears in the film, said.
13th packs a lot of information, data, footage, and commentary from the likes of Corey Booker, Van Jones, Angela Davis, Newt Gingrich, and many others into one hour and 40 minutes. And the timing couldn’t be better. With a month until election the film is a stark reminder that the kind of racialized aggression that we see today in Donald Trump’s speeches, tweets, campaign events, and hats is part of a tradition of election rhetoric. The documentary cites schemes like Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” which appealed to southern white voters using thinly veiled anti-black racism, to George H. W. Bush’s “Willie Horton ad,” which capitalized on the image of a black man to play to America’s fears of criminality.
“This isn’t the first time that an American presidential election has played on white racial anxiety, white racial resentment, and I think that this won’t be the last time,” Cyril said. “I think this is endemic to American politics, and it’s something that we need to change.”
“What it shows, too, is that this is a structural issue, that it doesn’t matter if it’s Democratic or Republican or liberal or conservative,” Gannon, who appears in the film, added, explaining that even though theoretically leadership has changed, the same types of policies continue to be passed.
“This isn’t anything new. We know this trick,” DuVernay said. “And it’s important that we all stay aware and focused on what it is, so that we can really react to it from a place of education, from a place of awareness, from a place of legacy, from a place of power and strength because this has been done before and it’s been combatted.”
The film is already making waves as the first documentary ever to open the New York Film Festival and will join an impressive lineup of Netflix documentaries when it’s released on the streaming service Friday. But DuVernay is hoping that it will challenge the way we think about racism and incarceration in this country.
She wants audience members who aren’t black to understand “that you do not know anything about the black experience as you should,” encouraging them to educate themselves on the matter and become an ally—something that will no doubt take work.
“If you’re black, [I hope you] understand that you are not alone in this moment,” she said. “That what you’re experiencing has been experienced by our ancestors for generations now, and we’ll be the generation to break it, through dissent, through action, through education, through boldness and bravery that build on their boldness and bravery.”