A couple of years back I wrote the following regarding the documentary titled The House I Live In:
In the same way that Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: mass incarceration in the age of color-blindness, has proven to be a catalyst in the movement to abolish the Prison Industrial Complex, The House I Live In has the potential to do the same on an even larger scale.
Those words should have been reserved instead for Ava DuVernay’s latest documentary film ‘13th’, which premiered on October 7 and is currently showing on Netflix. DuVernay’s film is already the most watched documentary on Netflix this year, and one need only watch the trailer to see why it’s receiving so much praise:
In the film DuVernay draws a direct connection from the era of chattel slavery to the modern-day system of mass incarceration in the United States – the prisonhouse of nations. As the documentary points out, the 13th amendment to the 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.”
In other words, slavery was never truly abolished in the United States. It was simply restricted to those “duly convicted” of a crime. Immediately after the amendment was ratified, the defeated slaveholders of the south set about making it so that as many of the formerly enslaved (and free persons of color) and their descendants as possible were forever marked with the label of “criminal.” Michelle Alexander explains “how in the post-civil war south, petty offenses were used to recapture newly freed blacks and force them into free labor under convict lend-lease programs that functionally reconstituted chattel enslavement.” DuVernay uses the movie to show how the forces that created the modern prison industrial complex were both economic and political. What is true in both cases is that this system was created by the white power structure as a way to continue enforcing racial hierarchy up to the very present. According to the New York Times, the movie will have “your blood boiling and tear ducts leaking” as it demonstrates
“The United States did not just criminalize a select group of black people. It criminalized black people as a whole, a process that, in addition to destroying untold lives, effectively transferred the guilt for slavery from the people who perpetuated it to the very people who suffered through it.”
Speaking about what she feels is the possibility of having only a short time-frame to get her message out to the public as a Black woman director in Hollywood, Ava DuVernay had this to say to the New Republic,
“I don’t know what’s there beyond four films, because none of us have done it. There is no black woman who’s made seven films. So for me it feels like a window that could close any time… It feels like, ‘Better get it in.’ Before it closes.”
Here’s hoping she has plenty more films up her sleeve. But even if it were to all end tomorrow, DuVernay has done a great service by documenting and exposing the slave origins of the today’s American penal system for all the world to see.