‘13th’: Uncovering the Exception to the Rule
Director Ava Duvernay (Selma) unveils a chilling new documentary that delves deep into an issue that has long been a part of America. At first glance, the documentary might appear to skim the surface of corrupt prison systems in America. However, within the first five minutes it makes a bold declaration on the history of the 13th Amendment, the shape in which it molded our country and its perpetual effects on our society.
Right off the bat the film takes us back to the days of the abolition of slavery, highlighting the 13th Amendment, which was created to abolish slavery. The phrase “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime” flashes on the screen within the first two minutes, introducing the main argument that criminalizing African Americans has become the new form of slavery. “Except as punishment for a crime” is seen as the exception to the rule that slavery is unconstitutional.
The documentary takes a deeper look into the pitfalls of the justice system from the abolition of slavery all the way to present day. The extensive research and preparation is evident as the film paints the picture of the hardships of African Americans facing discrimination by the police and the justice system. Simplified diagrams and statistics are presented throughout so that people can understand the bigger picture of what is going on. Stories are told throughout the decades that all embody the issues and effects of mass incarceration.
The individual stories are perhaps the most powerful pieces of the film. The story of Kalief Browder, who was just 16 years old when he was sent to prison for supposedly stealing a backpack, is a perfect model for the faults in our system. The majority of African Americans are pressured to take a plea deal rather than go to trial, regardless of whether they’re innocent or not. Browder would not claim to be guilty when he wasn’t and decided to take a stand against the justice system. He was held in prison for three years under inhumane circumstances until the charges were finally dropped. He later committed suicide after the emotional turmoil that he went through during his unwarranted time in prison.
Stories like Browder’s add an emotional connection to the viewers who may be separated from the issue and cast a sense of urgency in the need for change. Although the film covers a good chunk of time, it neither drags nor distances itself from the relevancy of the issue today. At one point, we see images from riots and police brutality in the 1960s with an unnerving voiceover by President Trump saying things like “I love the old day. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks,” in reference to a protestor at one of his rallies. The juxtaposition of Trump’s comments as a voiceover to police brutality in the sixties sends a strong message that not only are things not changing—they might be getting worse.
The goal of this film is to shock people as much as it is to expose an ongoing issue. The film itself discusses how shock factor is sometimes a necessary tool to get people to listen. It’s impossible not to feel the weight of the images as they flash upon the screen—lynching, beatings, and shootings throughout American history.
“13th’ clearly presents the prominent issues of police brutality as it is today while reaching back through history to make meaningful connections and unearth an ultimate problem of prolonged mass incarceration of African Americans. However the questions remain, why is this still an issue today? How can it be changed? The documentary wraps up its argument with the commentary on how people often claim they would never tolerate slavery, segregation, or discrimination, but ends with the impactful words: “we are living in that time, and we are tolerating it”.