Over the past few months, I’ve taken on an obsession with documentaries. The “13th” set the bar so unexpectedly high; I was truly blown away. All the documentaries I’d watched after it, while extremely eye-opening and educational, paled in comparison. Ava DuVernay does a sensationally magnificent job with this documentary which outlines the corruption behind the American jailing system. As a writer, it is so frustrating not being able to find the words to explain something. These things usually tend to take our breath away. Spark an interest, a passion. And that’s just what “The 13th” did for me.
The “13th” touches on a lot of subjects that are hard to talk about. The loophole in the 13th amendment that let freed slaves legally become slaves again. The same slaves that built America and shaped the American economic structures. The same slaves whose future kin were and are hyper incarcerated and hyper criminalized generations after freedom was supposedly granted. It touches on the loss of leaders in the black community post 1960’s. The free labor system. The monetization of the prison industrial complex. The corruption that lays in our legislators and lobbyists. The ties between corporations and legislators. It touches on police brutality and the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement. It touches on Nixon, Reagan, Bush and Clinton’s failures as presidents and how that vastly impacted mass incarceration. This documentary makes us realize that these legislators and former presidents can’t just say “I’m sorry” and act like the wound is healed. IT IS NOT. The wound is so deep. It runs in our homes, our economic system and political structures. It is systemized. They don’t get to propose and support harmful legislation that dehumanized my community for decades and act like a sorry and a few speeches is all it takes to fix this immensely vast problem. They don’t get to strip judges in the court of their right to judge and decide on a criminal case and act like everything is fine. They don’t get to militarize police stations on every level and ignore our police brutality problem. They don’t get to ignore the fact that the “rhetorical” war on drugs was really a political strategy to destroy marginalized communities across America.
America makes up 5% of the world’s population. Of America’s population, African Americans amount to 13% of the overall population. Only 13%. Here’s where it gets weird. America is home to 25% of the world’s prison population. That’s right. The land of the free houses one in four of people imprisoned around the world. Of that 25% imprisoned in America, 40.2% of these prisoners are black.
Why are so many in my community shackled? Why have we been stripped of our rights continually from the moment slaves have set foot on American soil? Why are we so overrepresented in crime and in America’s prisons and jail cells. Why is this issue not at the forefront of our nation’s political debate? And lastly, why do I feel this so personally and passionately?
I first saw the documentary a week after it came out on Netflix. I shed many tears at the end of the movie, but these weren’t my typical end-of-a-great film tears. These tears were angry. I was upset and fuming. The influx of information was crushing. Information that I was just learning, information that impacted my identity as an African American teenager. I remember I spent days drawing up diagrams trying to connect the concepts of the documentary all together. Trying to summarize the corruption on a mere 8x11.5 sheet of printer paper.
So, why am I writing about this months later? Because months later, I am still enraged by the mass incarceration of African Americans. Because months later, I realize how powerless I am against this incredibly twisted system of American imprisonment and the image of black criminality. Because months later, I'm still diagramming and researching. Thank you, the “13th”.
(I highly recommend all to watch this documentary. Plus, check out the score and soundtrack. They’re both as great as the film.)