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.