When the statistics of just how many African American men wind up in prison boils down to 1 out of 3, the time is ripe for questions to be raised and solutions to be proposed. Ava DuVernay, through her documentary 13TH, begins exactly this process. Her documentary evaluates the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution in a way which eerily and accurately hints that, after all these years, perhaps the amendment is merely a reincarnation of slavery. Chilling and provocative, DuVernay’s documentary delves into mass incarceration and the criminal justice system through statistics and testimonies.
In an interview with NPR, DuVernay speaks to the notion that prisons house criminals, so leave it alone; she says, “You can have a more deeply rooted and nuanced knowledge that, you know, every person who is in prison is not a criminal, that all crimes are not created equal, that all sentences are not equal.” As the documentary commences to unpack her statement, it becomes impossible to deny the truth of it.
The term “criminal” becomes multifaceted as the scholars, researchers, and activists interviewed by DuVernay closely analyze the word’s implications in the Thirteenth Amendment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” DuVernay and her colleagues study the clause which follows the liberating and inspiring statement – “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted. “ This amendment puts an end to slavery, but under closer analysis all it seems to do is hang in history as an unruly, undermining, and devastating loophole.
The 100 years after the Thirteenth Amendment are a recorded history of this unfortunate loophole as African Americans are systematically thrown back into a type of slavery disguised as segregation and Jim Crow. DuVernay’s research compilation of the criminalization of African American men is innovative and urgent as it throws the veil off why the statistic 1 out of 3 exists. As a way to get around the abolishment of slavery, people began labeling and portraying the African American man as a criminal so that the second clause in the Thirteenth Amendment would come into effect and reverse their emancipation from slavery.
The word “criminal,” its connotations of untrustworthy and dangerous, and its attachment to the African American man all became engrained within the fabric of American society as one. Over years of stereotypes, segregation, heresy, and propaganda, African Americans, and more specifically African American men, became enslaved to the cycles of poverty and racism. Unable to escape, DuVernay’s interviewees point out the sad realization that the notion of “criminal” became engraved in not just the White American society, but also the African American society; it became a term accepted by the African American population.
In this vein, the documentary then looks at leader figures in African American history and makes a curious analysis. Van King in the documentary makes the following point: “Dr. King, people forget, was not this beloved figure that everybody put on a pedestal. He was considered one of the most dangerous people in America by the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigations.” As the documentary covers these Civil Rights leaders, it points out that not only were these leaders criminalized and shamed, but they were also beat, imprisoned, run out of the country and murdered. DuVernay notes that these pillars of hope for the African American community were extinguished and, through the rise of mass incarceration in the 70’s and 80’s, the African American community was left raw, vulnerable, and susceptible to the two-faced criminal justice system.
At this point, the documentary begins to unravel and expose the political and monetary advantages of mass incarceration for, naturally, those with status, privilege, and power. DuVernay creatively tells about the exploitation
of African American men (and boys) and begins her stance that not every person in prison is a criminal. Money, convenience, stereotypes, corruption, and spite are all factors leading to wrongly convicted African American men and ultimately leading to the high numbers of those incarcerated.
Additionally, the documentary makes a compelling argument that even if a term is served, the American criminal justice system makes it impossible for that formerly incarcerated person to move on and begin again. Dr. Shervin Assari, a research investigator at the U-M School of Public Health and Department of Psychiatry, urges that, “The message to the policymakers is that psychological costs of incarceration do not end at when the individual is released. The individual is stigmatized and experiences more discrimination, which will take its toll on the individuals as well as society.” The cycle simply continues.
DuVernay’s documentary digs at the question of why African American men are the vast majority of those incarcerated in the United States; it points at years of politics aiming to undermine the abolishment of slavery. DuVernay challenges the conventional thought that prison is for “criminals” by deciphering the contexts of the term “criminal” throughout the decades. Her and her documentary truly embraces the movement of digging deeper into why and how the criminal justice system is so flawed and disappointing. All in all, DuVernay’s documentary challenges her viewers to learn and understand for themselves so that more light might be shed on the dark corners of America’s criminal justice system.
Rewrite and Summaries by : Jennifer Loa
- “Documentary ‘13TH’ Argues Mass Incarceration Is An Extension Of Slavery“. Podcast on All Things Considered. Dec. 17, 2016. NPR
- About “13th (film)“; Wikipedia;
For more information:
- Thomas Gnagey, Laurel. “Incarceration creates more mental health concerns for African-American men“. April 18, 2017. Michigan News, University of Michigan.
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