“13th” received a standing ovation last week at the New York Film Festival, where it became the first documentary to open the prestigious festival. The title refers to the 13th amendment, which formally abolished slavery. But DuVernay zeroes in on the amendment’s exception clause, which states that slavery and involuntary servitude are illegal “except as a punishment for crime.”
In an interview with The Washington Post, DuVernay said she initially sought to make a documentary that explored “the idea that there are companies making millions of dollars off the punishment of human beings.” But the documentary inevitably turns to current conversations about the criminal justice system and the fatal police shootings of African Americans.
“As I delved into [the prison labor industry], I found that you couldn’t fully tell that story without giving it historical and cultural context,” said DuVernay. The cultural context is Black Lives Matter — a clear theme in “13th” even before the movement is directly referenced.
The documentary features commentary from a range of experts including The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb, civil rights activist Angela Davis, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), former Obama administration official Van Jones and conservative tax reform advocate Grover Norquist.
DuVernay said Netflix approached her about doing a project for the streaming network after she completed her acclaimed historical drama “Selma.” The effects of incarceration had long been a topic of interest for the director and have been a recurring theme in her work. DuVernay’s sophomore film “Middle of Nowhere,” which won her the best director award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, follows a woman grappling with her husband’s eight-year prison sentence.
One of the main characters in DuVernay’s television drama “Queen Sugar, which premiered last month on OWN, is a convicted felon whose prison past makes it difficult for him to find a job and puts an ongoing strain on his relationship with his family. His sister Nova, a journalist, dedicates her work to exposing racial bias within Louisiana’s justice system.
But there is a sense of urgency in “13th,” which begins with the voice of President Obama, lamenting — in an address to the NAACP’s 106th National Convention — that “the United States is home to home to five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.”
DuVernay quickly establishes a connection between that staggering statistic and the post-Civil War era: The brief clause in the 13th Amendment allowed the South to rebuild its economy through prison labor. African Americans were arrested in large numbers — often for minor crimes. “It was our nation’s first prison boom,” Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow,” explains in “13th.”
“13th” credits D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation” with putting forth a false but lasting image of black men as criminals. The documentary follows the decades of lynchings, racial violence and Jim Crow laws that led to the civil rights movement. (Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation,” which tells the story of slave rebellion led by Nat Turner and co-opts the title of Griffith’s film, also gets released Friday.)
As the documentary charts the rising number of prisoners in the U.S. (from 357,292 in 1970 to 2,306,200 in 2014), DuVernay examines the “law and order” rhetoric popularized by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in the late 1960s, the misplaced fear used to justify violence against Black Panther party activists (including Chicago leader Fred Hampton, who was killed by police in 1969) and the racial disparities in drug sentences during the crack epidemic.
“13th” features footage of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaking about the infamous Central Park jogger case. Five black and Latino teenagers were convicted of the brutal 1989 beating and rape, but DNA evidence would later prove them innocent. The case led Trump to take out a full-page ad in the New York Daily News urging New York to “bring back the death penalty.”
“13th” juxtaposes the Republican nominee’s controversial campaign rhetoric with images of African Americans being attacked with high-pressure fire hoses and police dogs during the civil rights movement. But Trump’s Democratic rival isn’t left unscathed in the documentary, which highlights Hillary Clinton’s controversial 1996 remarks on “superpredators, ” which she made while supporting Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill.
The film also sheds light on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative policy group that provides model legislation for state lawmakers, including bills that potentially benefited for-profit prisons. DuVernay said she learned the most during this section of the documentary. “The fact that many of our laws are not made by lawmakers…was startling to me,” DuVernay said.
One of the most emotional segments of the documentary features videos of unarmed black men and women being killed by police. “13th” draws a link between these videos and the images that came before them — photos of horrific lynchings, Emmett Till’s open casket and footage of African Americans being brutalized during the civil rights movement.
Despite the fact that many videos of police killings are in the public domain or owned by bystanders who took the footage, DuVernay and her sister, Tera, got permission from the victims’ families to use the videos in the documentary. “That someone would use the last moments of someone else’s life without permission is regrettable to me,” DuVernay said.
DuVernay said she hopes the documentary will inspire people to “really examine their own thoughts and feelings” about how they may be complicit in the institution of mass incarceration. DuVernay said she is especially proud that the film is premiering on Netflix, which will make it accessible to more people. “The idea that folks can see this at any time, anywhere — it’s powerful,” she said.