For decades ‘race’ has been a topic in the hearts of many Americans. As an African-American myself, I am particularly sensitive to systematic oppression and institutionalised injustice that people of colour, particularly black males, face everyday. However, despite many years of experience as not only a black person, but an African-American person, I never truly comprehended how deeply rooted this oppression is and why it is perpetuated in one of the most supposedly tolerant generations to have ever lived on earth. That was not until I discovered Ava DuVernay’s hard-hitting masterpiece.
The documentary starts off with a harrowing statistic; “of the five percent of the global population that inhabit America, this population is able to donate twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners”. Had I stopped watching the documentary at this point and left it in the swamp of my Netflix watch list, my knowledge of black civil rights would still only skin the surface of the bigger picture. But this was DuVernay’s point, to skim the surface, to target what people already know and then to strip away the superficiality caused by over exposure, and leave a raw wound, throbbing, bleeding, aching, the way that black people have been taught to live their whole lives in this system of oppression. ‘One out of four human beings with their hands on bars, shackled, in the world, are locked up here in the land of the free’ – Van Jones.
DuVernay did not just make this documentary about prison statistics. She didn’t just hurl the same facts activists have repeated consistently. She shone a light on the enterprise of human bodies and exposed the American prison system as the cattle market that it truly is.
Amendment thirteen to the American constitution states that: ‘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.’
Slavery in the United States was never abolished, it was simply rebranded. Like a company under scrutiny, it was given a shiny remodel, a clean slate, and an expensive team of lawyers.
40.2% of the prison population are black men, mostly of whom are imprisoned for misdemeanours more aptly punished by community service or a small fine – and Salome of which should never have been arrested at all. However, DuVernay rejects this idea of black criminality ingrained in American society and instead, turns to the private prison industry which capitalises on this ‘war on crime’ – capitalises on the breakdown of families, the removal of fathers from their children, the dehumanisation of black people by only presenting them as one blanket stereotype in the American media, which eventually black people themselves have succumbed to.
Ava DuVernay does not leave this documentary in a place of desolation and resignation, she does not present people of colour as the victims. She shows us that black lives matter, she shows us the power we have in the form of social media, in the ability to force those who refuse to listen to see. She shows us the power we have in the ability to allow those who cannot to speak up to write. The 13th is much more than a simple collection of videos and a sprinkle of good editing. It is a symbol that for every new system of oppression that is targeted at the oppressed, they will fight back. The 13th is a masterpiece, as it reignites the flames of hope.