Black people have been tormented and dehumanized since the colonial area in the United States. White colonials captured Africans from their homeland, and forced Africans into slavery and oppression. The dehumanizing beliefs towards black people have been passed down from generation to generation in white culture. Complete divergence from the negative notions toward black people have not yet been reached in America today, and in Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, she hopes to rid society of the oppressive behavior by educating the uneducated, and creating awareness of the prejudiced justice systems in America.
In her film, DuVernay includes alarming statistics to prove the injustice in the incarceration system towards black people. Did you know that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world? Not China. Not Russia. The United States of America—the “land of the free.” Of the current 2,193,798 people in US prisons, 40.2% of that populace are African American, while African Americans take up only 6.5% of the national population. It is not because black people are natural born criminals. The rate of African American incarceration in the US prison system is solely due to unjust systematic oppression. They are not born with different instincts compared to white people. We are all made up of the same DNA. We are all human, yet there is so much discrimination towards African Americans even today, whether we are fully aware of it or not.
The film begins by educating the viewer about the first act of the mass incarceration of black people in the United States. The 13th amendment ruled the ownership of slaves to be illegal, but that does not mean that the black people were free. There was a massive loophole in the 13th amendment. Slaves were free, but criminals were not. And who were deemed as criminals? The recent freed slaves. Legislation used the inadequacy of the 13th amendment to criminalize black people and used them to rebuild the economic system in the south that was badly disturbed from the Civil War. Black people were arrested for miniscule acts such as loitering and vagrancy, and were forced to do physical labor. Even after the abolition of slavery, African Americans were still subjected to systematic oppression. Post-Civil War was only the beginning to long history of abuse black people have faced.
DuVernay concluded in her film a discussion on the first major blockbuster film in Americahe Birth of a Nation, and the impact it had on society during that time period. It was explicitly discriminatory against African Americans. White society portrayed black men as animalistic and threats to white people, women especially. In fact, a white, female character in the film jumped off of a cliff rather than be raped by a black man, whose character was played by a white man with makeup on his face to make him appear black. The Birth of a Nation triggered the rebirth of the KKK, and was the first media based institution to equate black men as “rapists,” totally disregarding the fact that more black women were raped by white men compared to white women being raped by black men.
13th goes on to discuss the next major event in American history that further incriminates African Americans—The Civil Rights Movement. After WWII, the baby boom generation were now adults, and crime rates significantly increased in the United States. The government blamed the rate increase on the movement. People were strong advocates for segregation and the Jim Crows laws because of the fear that giving too much freedom to black people would only continue to increase the crime rate. White society posed black activists and protesters as threats, so they were incarcerated in mass.
Moving forward in time, the modern-day drug war epidemic was brought about by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The war on drugs soon became the war on people of color. Crack cocaine was urbanized and associated with black people, and powdered cocaine was more suburban and associated with white people. Powdered cocaine was considered to be “sophisticated,” therefore received less harsh sentencing if caught with possession. Sentencing for one ounce of crack cocaine was equivalent to 100 ounces of powdered cocaine. Whether it was intentional or not, Reagan and his team specifically targeted African Americans with his harsh, mandatory sentencing quotas.
In 1985, the news overrepresented black men ass criminals and referred to as “super predators.” This secured the notion that all black men were dangerous with no empathy or conscious. Five teenage boys in New York City were convicted of rape and served 6-11 years in prison before they were released with proof they did not commit the crime. The pressure and fear of these “super predators” carried out by society, forced officials to make an unjust prosecution.
In 1990, the national prison populace was 1,179,200, and by 2000, the populace was 2,015,000. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Federal Crime Bill which increased the funding for police force and prisons, to ultimately lock up as many people as possible, causing the prison population to spike. This inadvertently created a militarization sense of power for the police force.
13th so discussed the power of wealth in the criminal justice system. A rich man and a poor man commit the same crime, and both post bail. Chances are, the rich man has enough money to bail himself out, while the poor man does not. And normally in this situation, who is less wealthy? A black man. 97% of the people in prison have a plea deal, even if they did not commit the crime. The lack of money for a lawyer for trial is a prominent factor as to why such a large portion of inmates never seek trial. Not only that, but they fear being found guilty, even if innocent, and having a much longer sentence.
Before viewing this film, I was one of those uneducated people, unaware of the extent that systematic oppression towards black people was taking place, whether it was direct or indirect. DuVernay’s purpose for this film was not to place blame, but to try to get people to recognize. Without recognition, no further action can be taken to resolve the issue. With recognition comes unity, and with unity comes change.