Raised in Compton, and educated in African American studies at UCLA, film-maker Ava DuVernay said that her life experiences have left the ravages of the US criminal justice system a subject very close to her heart.
“Having had the experience of being around folks who have been touched by mass incarceration” along with an education that offered a “framework for why and how things are happening” has had a major impact on the acclaimed director of Selma.
This proximity was largely behind her decision to embark on 13th, a full-length feature documentary on the racialized history of the criminal justice system and mass incarceration that opens this year’s New York film festival. The film is the first non-fiction offering to own that prestigious distinction.
“My hope for the film is simply that people come out more aware that prison isn’t just a place where bad people go,” DuVernay told the Guardian. “The hope is that we re-examine why we think what we think and question ‘have we been taught to think that?’ and ‘have we been manipulated to think that?’”
The film begins offering a number of the troubling statistics about race and incarceration in the US that have virtually become common knowledge in the past five years or so. The US is home to 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners. One in three young black men in the US today can expect to serve time in prison during their life. The prison population has grown exponentially since the 1980s-era war on drugs began in earnest, ballooning from a few hundred thousand to over two million today, with black people heinously overrepresented among them.
But DuVernay’s 100-minute voyage through the legacy of the criminalization of black Americans does more than rattle off statistics. Weaving a historical narrative from slavery through the present, the film and its contributors trace in stark relief, the various transmutations that the oppression of the black body in America has taken, and the ways that criminal justice has been recruited to that end.
Michelle Alexander, author of the bestselling book The New Jim Crow, explains in the film 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. Indeed the film’s title is drawn from the caveat in the 13th amendment, presumed to guarantee freedom for enslaved blacks, but also legalizes the slavery and involuntary servitude of convicted criminals.
The film winds from this early postbellum era through the extrajudicial lynchings of blacks in the early 20th century, through resistance to the civil rights movement and finally the war on drugs. All these mutating forms of racial control were premised at least in part, the film suggests, on white notions of black criminality. Every time the word is uttered in the film, no matter the historical context, it appears on the screen in bold white on black text to highlight this connection.
DuVernay said the film was conceived around the idea of telling the story of how privatization and profit drove much of the expansion and development of mass incarceration. “There is a really clean clear line of the black body being used for profit and for politics.
“But as we started working on the film we quickly realized in order for that to really pack a punch you had to understand the historical and cultural context,” DuVernay said.
A number of high-profile criminal justice reform advocates, like New Yorker columnist and UConn professor Jelani Cobb, former Obama adviser Van Jones and civil rights icon Angela Davis lend their voices to the film, along with some seemingly less likely figures.
Republican Newt Gingrich and conservative anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist also make appearances, in part highlighting the bipartisan consensus that has begun to built around issues of criminal justice reform– but also, according to DuVernay, some of the points of disagreement which still exist, and some of the potential land mines.
“I wanted to explore the question of why all this bipartisanship now … and we found a surprising answer that may not necessarily be positive,” DuVernay said.
Lingering on the American Legislative Exchange Council (Alec), 13th looks hard at how corporate interests have shaped public policy on criminal justice, and adapted to developments in the national consensus on crime and punishment. The film warns that as liberal and conservative opinion coalesces around the need to have less people in jail and prison, what’s likely to follow is a new wave of technology-aided supervision, like GPS-based monitoring of criminals.
“How much progress is it really if communities of color are still under perpetual surveillance and control, but now there’s a private company making money off the GPS monitor, rather than the person being locked in a literal cage?” Alexander asks in the film.
The film is not DuVernay’s first time engaging with this topic The first script she ever wrote, for acclaimed drama Middle of Nowhere also addressed the criminal justice system, as does Queen Sugar, a television series created by DuVernay that debuted earlier this month.
But by taking the subject on in a documentary format, DuVernay hopes the film can help provide a systematic, easy-to-follow “primer” on the past, present and possible future of mass incarceration.
“It’s about a slow unfolding of this tapestry that we’ve woven. This American quilt of injustice, oppression, systemic racism and anti-blackness. It’s about the construction of criminality that has been an ongoing, decades-long blight on our society and it’s a chapter by chapter and layer by layer peeling back of each and every piece.”
The film will be released on Netflix and in select theatres on 7 October.
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