Ava DuVernay’s documentary, 13th, is a powerful display of narrative facts that highlights the institutionalized slavery occurring in U.S. prisons. It furthers conversations about justice and race, showing how people of color are unfairly represented as criminals in the media. DuVernay will take you on an emotional ride as she features the discriminating and unjust experiences that millions of minorities have endured in society. Although 13th demonstrates the cruel reality of racism, it will make you want to become more involved in standing up for the freedom and justice of African American lives.
The title is based on the 13th amendment of the constitution, which declares that it is unconstitutional for Americans to be held as slaves. The 13th amendment was established to grant freedom to all Americans, excluding criminals. However, this meant that if people were sent to prison, they would automatically become slaves since the 13th amendment no longer applied to criminals.
DuVernay features the history of prison expansion, showing how some U.S. presidents created unfair policies, which led to the mass incarceration of African Americans. 13th also showcases how many companies are being financially benefited by the mass expansion of U.S. prisons.
DuVernay demonstrates how the representation of African Americans in the media has been mostly negative. The clips of many civil rights activists being vilified by police officers are frustrating to watch. Fred Hampton, leader of The Black Panthers, quickly won me over when he successfully united a group of Blacks, Whites, Native Americans and Puerto Ricans to stand up for justice. Discovering that Hampton ended up being killed by police in the middle of the night as he slept next to his pregnant wife at their home was heartbreaking.
At twenty-one years old, Hampton was already becoming an inspiration to many communities. Hampton did not deserve to be treated like a criminal. He could have given more speeches to the public. He could have helped more people who were struggling with racism. He could have helped his wife take care of their son throughout his childhood. Hampton had a bright future ahead of him. An interviewer in 13th, political activist, Angela Davis, revealed how the FBI presented her as a dangerous criminal after she was charged with a series of murders that she did not commit. When the system tried to send the latter to the death chamber, Davis showed courage when she decided to take her case to trial. DuVernay features a flashback of a younger Davis in the 1970s, asking a huge group of people: “What does it mean to be a criminal in society?”. Davis will make you think about her question throughout the documentary. You might ask yourself: “Why is the government so threatened by leaders that are just trying to unite multiple communities?”.
If these African Americans are standing up for justice and not hurting anyone, why are they considered criminals in the media? Wouldn’t society be better if more people were united? It's devastating to learn that Hampton and Davis were constantly bashed for trying to make our society more peaceful.
The clips featuring the dehumanizing treatment of many minorities in prison are painful. Kalief Browder's story will make you feel for him as you learn that he was charged for a crime that he did not commit. At sixteen years old, Browder was punished for refusing to receive a plea bargain. DuVernay features an interview of Browder talking about how he missed his home environment and family while showing scenes of him getting in many fights with other inmates, along with the prison guards.
These scenes are excruciating because Browder was an innocent child that deserved to have a great life. It was unjust for Browder to be taken away from his family and placed in solitary confinement for two years. You will root for Browder as DuVernay displays clips of him explaining why he had to fight for his innocence. Learning that Browder was released from prison after serving three years might give you a sense of relief. However, you will become devastated when it is revealed that he ended up committing suicide by hanging himself at just twenty-two years old.
Liza Jessie Peterson, Incarceration activist and educator, states: "In that time, in those three years, that he was sitting there, that's where the mental health issue started to deteriorate. The prison industrial complex, the system, the industry, it is a beast. It eats Black and Latino people for breakfast, lunch and dinner.". Peterson's statement shows how prison can negatively affect people's mental health. If Browder had never experienced the animalistic, horrible conditions in prison, he could have been alive today.
The camera work, interviews and special effects in 13th are resourceful as they emphasize how the era of mass incarceration has caused many problems in our society. Throughout the documentary, DuVernay plays music that goes perfectly with the political issues that she is addressing. Public Enemy's hit song, "Don't Believe The Hype" is played after DuVernay features clips of government officials stating that Blacks are detrimental to society, showing that those officials are wrong.
The interviewers in 13th, who are comprised of many civil rights activists and former incarcerated prisoners, also bring life to the documentary. Their presences are engaging as they inform you about how the inspiring African American leaders that have stood up for their communities. The former incarcerated prisoners will make you feel for them as they elaborate on how the prison conditions made them feel inferior.
The final act of 13th features an emotional montage of many African American males that have been killed by policemen. These videos were given permission to be in the documentary by the families of these men that have passed away. This montage will bring tears to your eyes as it displays the horrible injustice that our society has allowed. Hearing Eric Garner scream that he cannot breathe as an officer continues to choke him is incredibly heartbreaking. An interviewer points out that before Garner was attacked, he asked the policemen: “Why are you always stopping me?”. Garner deserved the right to ask that question because he just wanted them to view him as a human instead of a criminal. Garner, along with the other males in the montage, deserved to have long, fulfilling lives. After the montage, DuVernay incorporates photos of Black Lives Matter protests that will warm your heart. The Black Lives Matter movement is powerful and gives many communities hope because they are recognizing that everyone’s lives are valuable.
13th shows a compelling message that expresses how society needs to be more humanized. Mass incarceration has become detrimental because it allows some policemen to treat people as criminals instead of humans. The documentary perfectly captures the injustice that has caused society to become discriminatory. DuVernay emphasizes that our country should be more understanding about human equality. With an outstanding set of interviews, a moving soundtrack and a powerful message, 13th is a film that will further conversations about the importance of human dignity and justice.
Justin Coloyan is a blogger for CSUITEMUSIC.
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