From Plantations to Prisons – Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th

Directed by African-American filmmaker Ava DuVernay, this Netflix documentary, released in 2016, was nominated for the 2017 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. For the work of a Black female director to receive so much recognition and be backed by Netflix is truly an amazing feat. Streamed in 190 countries, the film’s message can reach audiences at any time, all over the world. 13th ensures the conversation of crime and race in America is rooted into mainstream culture. The title refers to the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution that abolished slavery and freed slaves unless the person was convicted of a crime. The amendment reads:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist in the united states.

13th explores the ways in which this small exception, which I have highlighted in bold, has been exploited over the years to keep Afro-Americans as criminals and thus slaves to the State. It is a stark social commentary on the history and present day workings of race and the prison system in the US. It opens with the voice of Barack Obama who tells us that ‘the US is home to 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners’; this is an undeniably staggering figure. DuVernay then goes on to trace the history of why the United States has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world and, more importantly, why so many of its inmates are African-American.

13th ultimately begins with an ending, that of the American civil war in 1865 which brought about the abolition of slavery and the creation of said 13th amendment. Yet, as the slave trade was primarily an economic system, the southern plantation owners, having been stripped of their slaves, now had to find new ways to rebuild their economy. African-Americans were subsequently arrested in mass, for crimes as petty as loitering, and put to work rebuilding the post-slave economy and the first US prison boom began. As the 13th amendment states no person shall be deprived of their freedom unless they are a criminal but once convicted your status basically reverts back to that of a slave. The documentary explores the numerous exploitations of this loophole.


The Jim Crow Laws that followed enforced segregation and relegated Black citizens to a second-class citizenship, shockingly until 1965. During the fight for the Civil Rights Movement, the rhetoric of law and order entered into political discourse as the US set on the path of mass incarceration. DuVernay foregrounds the historical rhetoric of the violent Black criminal or rapist that permeated society. Rising crime levels at the time were linked to the Civil Rights Movement and groups such as The Black Panthers, further perpetuating this image of the violent black individual. The documentary also investigates America’s War on Crime and the War on Drugs, under the presidencies of Nixon and Reagan. It examines the devastating consequences for Black communities of the Three-strikes law and mandatory sentencing as well as the 1994 Clinton crime bill that expanded the US prison system and created private prisons whose aims are to profit from punishment. Composed of a series of interviews, most notably one by Angela Davis (1970’s Afro goals!!) a key social activist during the Civil Rights Movement, and live footage from the past and present 13th opens up a dialogue about how: ‘Black people are the products of our history that our ancestors did not choose.’

I think the documentary merits so much credit in its successful unearthing of the reasons why so many black people end up behind bars. It questions why Black men account for 6.5% of US population but make up 40.2% of the criminal population, and how there are more Afro-Americans under criminal supervision than all the slaves in the 1850s. It also deconstructs the stereotype of the angry, violent black identity so often perpetuated by the media. When we are confronted with the image of the ‘broken black family made up of the black single mother with multiple children whose fathers are in jail’ we need to ask ourselves where this stereotype comes from. Why does it exist? DuVernay tackles our need to understand the past and the structures that have been created and pushed through society. Only in understanding and recognising these structures can we then can go on to dismantle them in the present.


Moving chronologically to a modern-day context, the documentary serves to perhaps shed light on the root of so many Black people’s anger and mistrust of the police. In recent years, we have seen numerous high-profile cases of police brutality and the murder of black citizens at the hands of officers. Videos from the arrests of victims such as Eric Garner and Tamir Rice ground the events of such recent tragedies in a tangible historical reality. Of course, no documentary about race in America would be complete without Trump (I obviously don’t need to hyperlink his name). Footage of him addressing an all white crowd during his election campaign juxtaposes with images of beatings and lynching. He shouts:

‘In the good old days, this didn’t happen because we used to treat [black people] very rough and if they protested once they wouldn’t do it again so easily’.

It made me question how far we have really come? From a UK perspective, it would be wrong to distance ourselves from this documentary. The treatment of communities of colour in the UK by the police are far from equal. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2014, black people made up 10% of the total UK prison population while accounting for only 3.5% of the UK’s total population. In fact, there is a greater disparity in the UK of Black people in prison compared to the US. The cases of Stephen Lawrence, Mark Duggan and more recently Edson Da Costa, remind us that the British police are hardly the poster boy for a discrimination-free institution. In recent statistics from the government’s Ethnicity facts and figures website, Black people are over 6 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people in 2017. There racial disparities at every stage from arrest to imprisonment.


Nevertheless, the ending to 13th is overtly hopeful. In an interview with Oprah, also on Netflix, DuVernay says that she ‘didn’t want a light ending… [she] wanted it to be something where you felt like you must do something’. As the credits roll, the screen fills with images of Black people in every day moments of joy layered with the song Letter to the Free by Common (listen to it, it’s so good!!). The garden hose reminds us of previous images of the police spraying black people with water cannons. DuVernay’s parting message is that despite the past, hope pervades. At times, it feels like the world is regressing in terms of tolerance, but 13th confirms how far we have come, as Black people. Both in terms of our understanding and in our resistance in new groups like Black Lives Matter. Yet, DuVernay reaffirms the journey left to go; when asked about her advice for young people she tells us to be forward thinking but also reminds us that in order to look ahead we have to look back.



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