Written by  Spencer Averick and Ava DuVernay. Directed by Ava DuVernay. A documentary based on the 13th Amendment and the U.S. history of racial inequality, systemic racism, and birth of mass incarceration. Running time 1 hour 40 minutes.


The film starts with the statistic that 25% of the world’s population in imprisoned in the United States and weaves numeric milestones of those imprisoned along side political and civil rights milestones.

While the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States, it included a phrase within which White people have used as a “loophole” to transition from the shackles of slavery to the shackles of imprisonment. It states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist.” Except as a punishment for crime.

Historical pictures and footage of slavery. Footage of the film “The Birth of A Nation” in which men in robes promote fear of Black men, hunting them down, and killing them. This film would inspire the KKK to burn crosses. Footage of the KKK, lynch mobs, hangings…horrific images.

Civil Rights footage of people protesting, segregation, images of White Only or Colored Only signage and people, and the politicians who kept the narrative alive. The narrative that Black people and people of color were a threat. Under the guise of Law & Order, new laws passed for tougher sentencing and wars on drugs.

Corporations financially benefiting from such laws and new ones rising up as mass incarceration becomes the answer. ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, is a non-profit group founded in 1973 which creates legislature for politicians looking for stronger actionable laws regarding law and order. Corporations with special interests, such as gun rights, donate to ALEC who, in turn, write legislation with strong support for gun rights. The politician then replaces ALEC’s information with theirs and passes it off to the House and Senate as theirs.

As Presidents come and go, one thing remains the same. The narrative against Blacks, the War on Drugs, and the rise of mass incarceration. REGARDLESS, of political party. Mass incarceration becomes the fastest growing industry with massive prisons and all the vendors which go with them. Tech and surveillance, uniforms, weapons, food, medical…it’s a business and you gotta keep the customers coming if you want to make money.

One thing that has changed, the invention of the phone with camera and video coupled with the internet. No longer is police brutality a mythical story of what happens to a few “criminals” or something that happens in the inner city, gang infested barrios of the U.S. but something documented and shown to happen everywhere. In broad daylight. To Blacks, to Latinos, to Whites, to women, to children, to the elderly. The abuse of power and desperate need to control and maintain the machine.

What I Liked

How angry this film made me. How in the dark I felt. I’m a smart person, went to college, and I had not put the pieces together. I loved how DuVernay parceled out the moments in the straight forward presentation of information through history. It was a timeline of events with pictures, footage, and interviews supporting the information. There were even a few people who contradicted the truth or tried to justify the actions, spin, if they could; however, it only made it more clear. DuVernay included interviews from people from varying perspectives and political views but most of them said the same things. “except as a punishment for crime” was a loophole to keep Blacks as legal slaves and the legislation from that moment to the present continues to do so. Footage of President Clinton and Hillary saying they knew the “3 Strikes Law” and “mandatory minimums” were bad but they had to be tough on crime because it was what they had to do to get elected.

So many interviewees, eloquently relating the history made my heart ache for those who have suffered in silence, fought with everything they had, lost family members due to the violence and color of their skin, and for the sheer notion of how senseless this fight has been over an irrational fear of a person’s skin. How people have profited for years on the literal blood, sweat, and tears of this community and false narrative ingrained in our society.

What I Wished Was Better

I question why President Obama didn’t receive more air time in this documentary? He’s seen walking with a group of people across the bridge for the 50th anniversary of Selma and visiting a huge prison but that’s it. No one mentions any work toward prison reform or police brutality reform. Did he try? If all these people KNEW the laws were bad, if by now corporations had begun distancing themselves and pulling out from ALEC, wouldn’t his 8 years as president been an opportunity to make these changes? To at least start the conversation or put steps in place to defund the prison system and find these people a way back to their families and lives? DuVernay puts a lot of energy into White Politicians–Republican and Democrat–which she should as they were instrumental in the narrative but then holds back when President Obama shows up, then comes back with President Trump. If we’re holding people accountable, doesn’t that mean everyone? **I did some googling and found President Obama did try to make changes with prison reform–which didn’t pass (which should tell you something). He received approx 36,500 requests for clemency. Of those, 1,927 were granted and another 212 were pardoned. (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/01/20/obama-used-more-clemency-power/) DuVernay doesn’t include Obama’s efforts which puzzles me. It would have been another opportunity to show the problems within the machine. Notably, fingers pointing directly at Congress who claim to have the best interests of the country at heart when her whole documentary shows otherwise through history.

Final Thoughts

With the #BlackLivesMatter movement (which isn’t new and that’s another reason to be angry) education about my country has become even more vital. Honestly, White people live in a bubble because White people constructed the bubble. I’ve bitched and complained about hard times in my life, being bullied at work, thought of as less than in more ways than one; BUT, it was never a predetermined opinion based on the color of my skin. I could still go about my life–good or bad–without being questioned. That’s White privilege. If people think they don’t have it, they have it the most. Being a woman is only a step closer to feeling discriminated against but only a tiny one. I still had more opportunity than my cohorts of color.

As all documentaries are—the tip of the iceberg–and a starting point to dig into history and learn from it–13th takes a strong, hard look at racism in our nation but none of the interviewees give suggestions or talking points about the steps we need to take. Black live matter, yes; but how do we go from here –racism, inequality, mass incarceration– to there—equality, jobs, less imprisonment, families rebuilt or restored (as much as they can) and REPARATIONS. What does the plan look like on paper? Can it be fiscally and responsibly done? Who will do it? When? Unraveling the decades of the false narrative taught by Whites and the political and societal shackles imposed will be like trying to separate the colors of playdoh after making a multi-colored sculpture. Sure, you can do it but it takes a long time and you never really get the colors completely apart. (I’m using colors of playdoh as an example of how no matter how painstakingly precise you are removing the red from the white–there’s still a bit of pink left behind.) Also, what are the steps to ensure people will have jobs and housing and mental health and all the things associated? Banning choke holds are a start but not enough and Congress shouldn’t be allowed to think it is. And just because it’s banned doesn’t mean people will stop doing it…

So many questions! So much disappointment in my country and leaders. So much sorrow I wasn’t paying closer attention and standing up earlier. So much to learn and become better as a human. Available on Netflix. Watch the trailer below:

***Many years ago (maybe 2007?), I was a single mom living in a suburb of Los Angeles, working a lot of weird jobs. I baked cookies, sold life insurance, and various things to make money. One of my jobs was delivering phone books. Back when people still used phone books and you’d come home and there would be a plastic bag with a book of the white pages and a book of the yellow pages? Yeah, I did that. I saw an ad looking for delivery people and thought, “How hard can that be? Sounds like a quick buck?” I show up to the job site, I’m the ONLY White person there, let alone female. The guys takes my application and says, “Okay…here’s your map. Come back Friday for your load.” My map is of South Central Los Angeles. I’m thinking shit, well, okay. I take all the seats out of my minivan and show up on Friday. The rest of the people were Black or Latino and they kept looking at me like I was crazy. It takes two loads to get all the books home. I called my Aunt Helen once I realized there was no way I was going to get this done by myself by Sunday night. (They send someone to drive around on Sunday afternoon to check and see if the books were left on people’s porches properly, then you show up on Monday to get your check.) She agrees to help and get the books stuffed into each bag which took most of Saturday. Sunday morning, bright and early we set off with the first load. Nervously, we start out by parking a bit ahead and each taking an arm load of bags leaving them on the doorsteps. Some houses had gates, most had bars on the windows, and some were apartment buildings with both. We got through the first load and while some of the residents looked at us quizzically, no one really said anything aside from the occasional thank you when they saw what we had. We stopped for lunch, laughed about how crazy we were for doing this, and resolved to get the last load done as fast as possible—and never do this job again. This time, we took turns driving the car slowly along the street while the other dropped off the books. (My aunt did not have a driver’s license and didn’t really know how to drive but she could start and stop well enough.) During the course of this, we noticed more people taking notice of out presence. At one time, a gentlemen came out as I approached his home and asked what were doing there. I responded something about delivering phone books and handed him a bag. Looking directly at me, he tells me we don’t belong there. I say we still have more books to deliver. If we don’t, we won’t get paid. He tells me to hurry up and be done before sundown. It won’t be safe for us after that. *I would only partially understand those words until now.* I walked back to the van and told my aunt we have just been warned and we need to work faster. We did. Laughing nervously and quietly for our safety, keeping our heads down, the whole time wondering what would could happen and praying that it wouldn’t. As we finished and drove out of the neighborhood, we felt triumphant. We did the job we were given–a back-breaking tiring job–and survived. Neither of us took for granted at that moment how lucky were were to be able to drive away, back to my much safer neighborhood. I think we got paid a couple hundred bucks. Not very much if you break down how much time it took to drive there, load up twice, package all the books and then two loads to the neighborhood and the hours walking and setting down the books at each door. Pretty sure those other people at the job did it on a regular basis, breaking their backs, doing jobs like that for practically no money just to make enough to pay their rent and put food in their mouths. I was working a lot of odd jobs but still privileged enough not to have to that job again.

My point of that story is not to say I’ve experienced racism. I haven’t. What I experienced was a community of people who did, and still do, experience racism daily and who STILL looked out for me as a White woman. Knowing I didn’t belong there but not meaning any harm, I was allowed to be there for a time but any later than that, they wouldn’t be able to defend me.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *