After finishing her work on Selma, director Ava DuVernay got word from Netflix about doing a documentary film. Entitled 13th, the film would take a look at the prevalence of the imprisonment of black men who are then forced to work for pennies on the hour in the service of large corporations. Its name, 13th, comes after the 13th amendment of the United States Constitution, which when passed, basically abolished slavery, except in the case of a person who was convicted of committing a crime.
Ava DuVernay’s film looks at the effect of the Bill Clinton era ‘three-strikes-you’re-out’ laws which filled up the prisons and which also put large numbers of black men behind bars. The profit motive, as well as racism, is explored thoroughly in 13th. The film is critical of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and explores the effect of other laws and policies, such as Jim Crow and Richard Nixon’s ‘war on drugs.’
Ava DuVernay knew she wanted to do something that would take a look at the prison system, but what she found was shocking. 13th captures the disturbing fact that inmates sometimes earn as little as 12 cents an hour working for businesses like Victoria’s Secret and Walmart. Her documentary is important because it sheds light on the correlation between high rates of black incarceration, the criminal justice system, and legalized slavery.
In making 13th, DuVernay reviewed 1,000 hours of race-related footage, including both archived footage and cellphone video of police beatings, and she also reviewed photographic evidence of lynchings. She interviewed both legal experts and people who are involved in social activism. The Netflix documentary also features violent footage from Donald Trump rallies positioned against 1960s civil rights footage, with the presidential candidate, Donald Trump, quoted as saying, “in the old days, protesters would be carried out on stretchers.”
The documentary served as the opening film for the celebrated New York Film Festival and was the first non-fiction film to be chosen as such in the last 54 years. It received a standing ovation at a screening for the press and is already being spoken of as a potential Oscar nominee. It has received glowing reviews on sites like Slate and Fortune, among others. 13th has been heralded as a groundbreaking piece of filmmaking which has exposed the widespread practice of arresting black men on minor charges and then making them work for a pittance in the form of legalized slavery.