“13th” Film and Discussion – Zoey Brown

To honor Black History Month and advance my understanding of African-American history, I recently viewed 13th, an engrossing Netflix documentary directed by Ava DuVernay in 2016, which is about how mass incarceration in America heavily correlates with the criminalization of black communities. This film featured a mix of black and white intellectuals, activists, and politicians, including Angela Davis, Van Jones, and Michelle Alexander, who shared their perspectives on the criminal justice system. The purpose of this movie is to raise awareness of the unequal treatment of African-Americans that has led to their criminalization from the 1960s to the present. The core themes of this film are systemic racism, brutality and control, and human dignity; these matters have utmost relevance, especially amid the Black Lives Matter movement. The essential narratives of this documentary are those of Kevin Gannon, James Kilgore, and Jelani Cobb, who supply valuable thoughts connected to these themes. As a whole, these accounts and topics are fundamental to black history because they indicate that white Americans have continually discriminated against African-Americans, eventually causing several black and white people to aim toward combating this injustice. The film presented significant questions that I will answer throughout my argument: How is the 13th Amendment eternalizing slavery in America? How have politicians and media platforms negatively influenced the image of black Americans over the last few decades? How can our nation reverse this image and provide black individuals with the civil rights they deserve?

The major theme of systemic racism displayed its roots at the beginning of the movie: the phrase “except as a punishment for crime” in the 13th Amendment. This amendment has granted freedom to all Americans since 1865, excluding prisoners; white individuals use that exclusive phrase to exploit African-Americans. In the film, history professor Kevin Gannon states, “if you have that embedded in the structure, in this constitutional language, then it’s there to be used as a tool for whichever purposes one wants to use it” (13th). As a result of this exception, black communities are disproportionately criminalized to provide slave labor in American prisons. I examined that, throughout all of African-American history and currently, the white population has taken advantage of black people for labor and laws have defended this behavior, which is necessary to understand in this history. In Freedom on My Mind, written by Deborah Gray White, Mia Bay, and Waldo E. Martin Jr., the document of the Massachusetts Body of Liberties of 1641 states that “there shall never be any bond slaverie, villinage or Captivitie amongst us unles[s] it be lawfull Captives taken in just warres, and such strangers as willingly selle themselves or are sold to us” (White et al. 80). I connected this excerpt from “Chapter 2” of my course textbook with the systemic racism seen in 13th to allow us to decipher that, in both time periods, white people attempted to justify slavery and earn labor while denying African-Americans of freedom by utilizing subtle yet powerful language in their laws, like “unless” and “except.” This exploitation established the basis for discrimination and simultaneously concealed the entire American population from the criminalization and cruelty that black individuals undergo.

Another vital topic, brutality and control, was mainly exhibited during the documentary by past politicians. Presidential candidates, like Bush in 1988, gained support by promising to solve the crime issue in America, leading them to harshly target African-Americans. James Kilgore, an author that was once imprisoned, conveyed in the documentary that “Bush won the election by creating fear around black men as criminal without saying that’s what he was doing” (13th). Due to his campaign, the media created an image of black Americans as lawbreakers which induced the overrepresentation of African-Americans in jails. From African-American history, I analyzed that some white individuals have, and still, unfairly view black individuals as savages and subsequently inflict cruel treatment upon them, which is imperative to grasp in this history. As claimed by the authors of Freedom on My Mind, after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, Virginia’s legislators abused their authority “by empowering whites and subjecting blacks to ever-stricter systems of control, the colonial legislature took significant steps toward deepening the racial divide and creating an entrenched system of racial slavery” (White et al. 55). I associated this selection from “Chapter 2” of the text with the brutality and control revealed in 13th to facilitate our understanding that now, and back then, the white population has possessed a subliminal bias toward African-Americans, giving black people an inferior status and white people an excuse to misuse their power. While the media convinced many white individuals that they should criminalize and punish black communities, some people likely began to discover the targeting and prejudice of African-Americans.

Furthermore, scholars and activists highlighted the crucial theme of human dignity at the end of the movie. The media has been responsible for criminalizing and dehumanizing African-Americans for decades, yet there is a capability of producing the opposite effect. Jelani Cobb, a professor of African-American studies, articulated in the movie that “searching for the medium of technology, that will confirm your experience such that your basic humanity can be recognized” (13th). Because of their access to various forms of media, victims and witnesses of racism and criminalization have been able to circulate their stories and experiences; therefore, the white population can perceive the harsh reality that black communities live in and possibly feel urged to join African-Americans in  reforming the criminal justice system. I interpreted that, in certain aspects of African-American history, some individuals rightfully opposed the brutalization of black Americans and advocated for their equality, which is valuable to comprehend in this history. According to the creators of Freedom on My Mind, Quakers approached slavery in 1688 as inhumane, declaring that “‘we should do to all men like as we will be done ourselves; making no difference of what generation, descent, or colour they are’” (White et al. 69). I related this quotation from the second chapter of my textbook with the concept of human dignity reflected upon in 13th to enable us to learn that, in the past and present, Americans of all races have detected incidents of racism and promoted civil rights for black people. Most individuals in America, along with the media, are now acknowledging and attempting to confront the criminalization and maltreatment of African-Americans.

Throughout African-American history, black individuals have endured the hostility of the white population and inequality through systemic racism, brutality, and control. Although history seems to ceaselessly recur, Americans have begun to realize the importance of human dignity as it applies to African-Americans. However, this delayed realization will never compensate for the past and present suffering of black communities; white people could have prevented this by questioning discrimination and taking tangible action alongside African-Americans to fully eradicate it. Overall, the narratives of Gannon, Kilgore, and Cobb, along with others in the film, strongly developed these themes in response to mass incarceration. In the future, I will analyze certain questions: Will mass incarceration continue to disproportionately affect African-Americans, or decline after it receives more attention? Will the criminal justice system start treating all Americans humanely?

13th. Directed by Ava DuVernay, Kandoo Films, Forward Movement, 2016. Netflix. www.netflix.com/title/80091741.

“Chapter 2: African Slavery in North America, 1619-1740.” Freedom on My Mind, by Deborah Gray White et al., 2nd ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017, pp. 55–80. 

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