Why Ava DuVernay’s “13th” Is Still Relevant Four Years Later

Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary “13th” highlights the ties between the injustices within the criminal justice system and the United States’ history of slavery and discrimination. The documentary has become a vital part of educating the masses on the crisis of mass incarceration. With the Black Lives Matter movement gaining momentum, it is crucial to understand that the United States has made several strides throughout history but still has a long way to go.

DuVernay highlights that even though slavery was abolished over 150 years ago, the system of oppression has been constantly reinvented. The 13th Amendment states that slavery and involuntary servitude is abolished “except as a punishment for a crime.” This crucial segment of the 13th Amendment is what has legally allowed the prison-industrial complex to develop into what it is today. America has made progress over the course of history by abolishing the previous systems, but there are still many more steps to take. 

Upon the end of the Civil War, black codes were implemented to restore the pre-emancipation system of race relations. Under the black codes, African Americans were forced to provide labor as sharecroppers. This expanded during the Reconstruction Era where Jim Crow laws were established to maintain discrimination and segregation. 

Jim Crow was used as a means to portray the African American stereotype and instill the fear of crime. The grandfather clause made poll taxes and literacy tests required in order to suppress voting rights. Legal segregation was birthed, denying equal access to public facilities for nearly 100 years. 

The Civil Rights Movement sparked in the 1950s, challenging the laws that were infringing upon the Constitutional rights of African Americans. One of the most compelling parts of the documentary was being able to see the perspective of Civil Rights activist Angela Davis. Activists were seen as criminals, and many like Davis were voluntarily arrested as a way of representing the embodiment of the movement. Crime rates increased drastically meanwhile lynchings became more prevalent. The fight for justice prevailed resulting in the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Legal segregation may have come to an end but discrimination was still deeply rooted in the criminal justice system. 

In the 70s, discrimination became a political instrument used to divide the country and criminalize millions. By this time over 350,000 people were incarcerated. DuVernay exposes how President Nixon used the war on crime and the war on drugs to feed into his own political agenda. The call for “law and order” was deeply rooted in the Southern Strategy to gain the support of working-class white citizens. This strategy was meant to disrupt black communities and criminalize them for petty crimes for which they would face grand consequences. 

This didn’t stop at Nixon’s presidency; Reagan, Bush, and Clinton began to follow in the same footsteps of continuing to use the fear of crime and drugs as fuel for their political agenda. With the rise of crack cocaine came longer sentences for African Americans than whites. The media began to reiterate the stereotypes of black men as seen in the Jim Crow era, televising the arrests of black men and portraying them as super predators.

Clinton’s administration increased funding for law enforcement and endorsed the death penalty in the 90s. The administration also implemented mandatory sentences and the three-strikes law, making it so that those convicted of three felonies would be sentenced for life. This was part of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act which would become the heart of the cause of mass incarceration. Prosecutors pushed for deals that offered life without parole for small crimes. Many of those who were imprisoned were not guaranteed the right to a fair trial and 95 percent agreed to the plea bargain. 

DuVernay also exposed that big corporations, such as ALEC, strived to fill state-sponsored prisons and pushed for their own legislation in order to make a profit. These prisons were dehumanizing, lacking adequate meals and healthcare, and were a space that created mental health issues. Those that are wrongfully convicted or convicted for small crimes have a hard time recovering once they are released. Criminal records follow them forever and ruin their lives.

In the past few decades, the increase of police brutality and hostility towards African Americans has become more apparent. Social media has been picking up on these injustices and looking to the masses to spark a change. These incidents are in no way isolated and are part of a long system of oppression. 

Stop and frisk has made it easy for officers to target African Americans, displaying that white supremacist ideals still exist. There are thousands of people whose cases go unheard, which the future generation will no longer stand for. 

In 2014 the shooting of the unarmed Michael Brown by a white police officer resulted in a series of protests and riots. People have become tired of the way that America is progressing as many more individuals die at the hands of the police. Police brutality is still an issue that is disregarded by the current administration as we are faced with a President that benefits from division. This is especially exhibited through the response that the people have had in relation to the murder of George Floyd.

In 2020 we are still seeing police officers abuse their power and treat African Americans unjustly. This sparked a series of riots and peaceful protests all across the country as the youth demands the end of systemic oppression. The Black Lives Matter movement is expanding across social media to educate others on the cause and ways to help. As the media displays its bias, individuals turn to sites, such as Twitter and Instagram to uncover the truth. Others have been turning to articles and documentaries that unearth the history of America’s greatest sin that is still being paid for.

“13th” has done an exceptional job of unveiling why and how the people that built America have been so disenfranchised for hundreds of years. Racism still exists within the United States and is especially displayed within the criminal justice system. The mass incarceration of African Americans for petty crimes and treatment by police officers has shown that the United States has a long way to go. 

We are able to see many parallels between the Civil Rights Movement and the Black lives Matter movement. African Americans are fighting a system that was not made to bring justice to them and the administrations that have failed to protect their rights and encourage unity. The fight for racial justice continues as individuals from all 50 states have come together to protest and stand together to bring about change. 

Resources to learn more information: 

Black Lives Matter https://blacklivesmatter.com/

Ways to Help https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co/

5 of the Most Powerful Documentaries on Systemic Racism You Can Stream Right Now


19 Netflix movies, shows, and documentaries about race and racism


From Slavery to Segregation https://segregationinamerica.eji.org/report/from-slavery-to-segregation.html

Black History: A History of Permanent White Oppression, from 1619 to 2016


Sangeeta Lall

Hi! My name is Sangeeta but some people refer to me as San. I am passionate about creating art that expands upon my perception of life. I often refer to myself as a coffee enthusiast. As someone who makes too many movie references, I hope to become a filmmaker in the future.