Review of "13TH"

Courtesy of Netflix

While many Americans were celebrating Halloween this Oct. 31, I was reviewing “13TH,” which is not another slasher horror film, but a film now available on Netflix that examines the real life horror for those trapped in the American prison system. Ava DuVerney’s documentary “13TH” is in reference to the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery except in the case of convicted felons.

DuVerney discusses through her film how that loophole has expressed itself in the mass incarceration of minorities. The film takes you on a journey through the history of race, incarceration and economics in America, starting from the Reconstruction Era to the present day prison industrial complex. The documentary is compelling, alarming and educational. The film makes you question the “justice” system and how it deals with race within the prison system in the United States. Despite the heavy topic, “13TH” provides a fairly balanced discussion of the facts and reasons for the need for reform.

The most powerful segment of the documentary was the montage of instances of police brutality, from the pictures of Emmett Till’s body to the video of Eric Garner’s murder. The footage is shocking and draws connections between individual cases of brutality and problems with discrimination in the larger criminal justice system. DuVerney shows the viewers that the exploitation of minorities by the criminal justice system is a pattern with roots in the need for free labor after the Civil War, which capitalized on the loophole excluding criminals from the 13th Amendment. Once freed, former slaves would be “criminalized” and put to work on “chain gangs.” DuVerney then tracks the evolution and expansion of this process of criminalization to various moments in American history up to the present.

The images are impactful in their own right, but in combination with the soundtrack, the documentary creates serious reflection. The film featured songs like “Work Song” by Nina Simone, as well as “Don’t Believe the Hype” by Public Enemy. The jazz classic, “Work Song,” written in the 1950s, is about a man serving out his prison sentence on a chain gang doing hard labor. “Don’t Believe the Hype” is a hip-hop/rap anthem written in 1995 about the criminalization of black males in the media. These songs, although from very different genres and generations, unite in their shared message of the injustices in the criminal justice system.

One possible criticism that could be made of “13TH” is the use of graphic images and video clips within the film. Multiple violent and disturbing deaths are shown throughout, and sometimes viewers seem to be expected to know the references. The shocking imagery was clearly a conscious choice by DuVerney. The issue of oversaturating the media with these images is brought up in the film and is justified with the idea that the public needs to be shocked into action; if they can’t stomach seeing it on TV, then they shouldn’t be able to stomach it happening in real life.

Overall, DuVerney simultaneously captivates and educates the viewer. The images and soundtrack work together with the narration and interviews in a way that moves the audience to question the justice system in America and what can be done to change it.

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