Companion to the Film, 13th


by Michelle Palmer

Originally, this post was going to be a review of the new documentary from Ava DuVernay, 13th. But to be honest, I think this four-star review by Odie Henderson on Roger Ebert is sufficient for that purpose. Instead, I thought it might be more helpful to create what I’ve decided to call a “Companion to 13th.” 13th provides an explanation for why certain aspects of our criminal justice system have evolved the way they have, particularly mass incarceration and the way in which it is disproportionately applied to people of color. This companion will be useful to any of our readers who fall into one of two categories:  those who want more information on mass incarceration and those who want to resist it. It’s basically a big list of resources for more information for those in the first category and organizations to get involved with for those in the second. Maybe it won’t be the most fun post, but I hope it’ll be helpful! 


Just a note about the documentary before I start…

Paramount Pictures Presents "Selma" In  Selma - Special Screening At Selma Walton Theatre

13th traces the roots of mass incarceration back to the emancipation of slaves in 1865. It may sound far fetched, but the key is a loophole in the 13th amendment: “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…”  This means if you’re a CRIMINAL, the 13th amendment no longer applies to you. And according to Jelani Cobb, this loophole was “immediately exploited.” I won’t go into detail here because I so desperately want you (YES, YOU!) to go and see it for yourself. It’s on Netflix, so there’s no excuse. (And if you don’t have Netflix, well, firstly, WHY NOT?!?! And secondly, you can always get a free trial.) But let me tell you this:  the way Ava DuVernay makes the connection from 1865 and the immediate aftermath of the ratification of the 13th amendment to mass incarceration in 2016 is deeply compelling. It’s not linear or perfectly straightforward, but in the end (especially after two watches – there is a LOT to digest), the message is clear and the evidence persuasive.

And if that’s not quite enough to make you want to watch it, please note that there is an excellent soundtrack (including a brand new, original track by Common) and stunning graphics by Hans Charles.

13thExploring Mass Incarceration and its Origins

“So many aspects of the old Jim Crow are suddenly legal again once you’ve been branded a felon. And so it seems that in America, we haven’t so much ended racial caste, but simply redesigned it.” – Michelle Alexander

If you haven’t heard much about mass incarceration or you have and want to know more, this next section is especially for you. Each of the topics in bold below are discussed in the film. I have found resources (books, documentaries, articles, etc.) which will be helpful for those seeking to understand these issues more. 

Mythology of black criminality:

(Disclaimer: I think it’s vitally important to note that the policies leading to mass incarceration disproportionately affect people of color. For this reason, I have more resources dedicated to this topic than any other.)

Early alternatives to slavery post-1865:

Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon – “The film tells how even as chattel slavery came to an end in the South in 1865, thousands of African Americans were pulled back into forced labor with shocking force and brutality. It was a system in which men, often guilty of no crime at all, were arrested, compelled to work without pay, repeatedly bought and sold, and coerced to do the bidding of masters. Tolerated by both the North and South, forced labor lasted well into the 20th century.” Slavery by Another Name is available both as a documentary from PBS (link above) and a book (available here.) 

1994 Crime Bill:

“20 Years Later, Parts Of Major Crime Bill Viewed As Terrible Mistake” from NPR – “‘Criminal justice policy was very much driven by public sentiment and a political instinct to appeal to the more negative punitive elements of public sentiment rather than to be driven by the facts,’ he said. And that public sentiment called for filling up the nation’s prisons, a key part of the 1994 crime bill.”

Discussions of Mass Incarceration:

This is at the heart of the documentary. If you want to know more, I’ve got suggestions for you in book, podcast, and article forms.

And if all that wasn’t quite enough, visit these sites:

Why does all of this matter? 

“…if you dismiss black complaints of mistreatment by police as being completely rooted in our modern context, then you’re missing the point completely. There has never been a period in our history where the law and order branch of the state has not operated against the freedoms, the liberties, the options, the choices that have been available for the black community, generally speaking. And to ignore that racial heritage, to ignore that historical context, means that you can’t have an informed debate about the current state of blacks and police relationship today, ‘cause that didn’t just appear out of nothing. This is the product of a centuries-long historical process. And to not reckon with that is to shut off solutions.” – David Gannon

13th-001So, now what?

When you connect these statistics, these vast numbers, to actual human beings and feel the inevitable heartbreak, then what? Change feels impossible, but it’s not. Here’s some ways to can make a difference: 

  1. VOTE. Especially in local elections. The first stages of the criminal justice system happen in the local government.
  2. Share what you’re learning. There are people who decry “slactivism,” but lots and lots of your friends and family get their news from Twitter and Facebook. It’s how we communicate in 2016. That’s just a fact. Remember: Sharing is caring, folks!
  3. I did a little (and I do mean a little) bit of research into some of the organizations represented in the film. With that little bit of effort I put in, I found the following websites with TONS of info on the situation and what each organization is doing to resist. I hope to put in quite a bit more effort and find one or two that I really believe in to back with my support. Each site has ways you can get involved, so please join me!


Now get yourself to Netflix!

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6 thoughts on “Companion to the Film, 13th

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