The Selma director’s searing new Netflix documentary, available today, argues that slavery persists in our criminal justice system.
Our news cycle, sadly, has no shortage of stories detailing violence against African-Americans. Every week or two seems to bring another name, another Facebook Live video, another senseless killing of another black man, woman, or child in a police encounter gone horribly wrong. With these tragedies seeming hopelessly ubiquitous, and with outrage already running high, the average Netflix user may hesitate before clicking on Ava DuVernay’s 13th, a documentary that just opened the New York Film Festival and premieres on the streaming platform tonight.
But we need 13th—desperately. If the daily news cycle reliably chronicles injustice at its extremes, it’s less adept at contextualizing these extremes. What about injustices that don’t result in blood? What if instead of being fatally shot, a man, woman, or entire community is slowly, insidiously suffocated? This less obviously dramatic, but much more far-reaching, violence against Americans of color is the true subject of 13th, which argues that slavery in the Unites States was not so much eliminated as transformed, and that its spirit persists in this country’s swollen criminal justice system.
“Police violence, that isn’t the problem in and of itself,” says one of the film’s interview subjects, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindnes, which DuVernay has cited as an influence. “[Police violence] is the reflection of a much larger, brutal system of racial and social control known as mass incarceration, which authorizes this kind of police violence.”
The film’s title comes from the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Widely considered a landmark in the narrative of black liberation in the U.S., the amendment’s 1865 passage was the subject of the recent Steven Spielberg film, Lincoln. The amendment declared that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude…shall exist within the United States.”
But what about that ellipsis? In 13th, DuVernay, who directed 2014’s Academy Award nominee for Best Picture Selma, focuses on a clause in the middle of the amendment, which abolishes slavery “except as punishment for crime.” This caveat, for DuVernay and for many of the people she interviews, is key to understanding how slavery—or at the very least, racial oppression—has continued under the guise of legality.