2016 was a sterling year for documentaries. Weiner captures a politician in the midst of a life-altering scandal that later impacted a presidential election. Lo and Behold brings Werner Herzog's unique queries to bear on the Internet and what it means to rely so heavily on connectivity.
And then there's 13th. Ava DuVernay, the woman who helmed the renowned Selma, dropped the relatively unexpected documentary on Netflix in October of 2016. It explores mass incarceration in the United States, specifically after the 13th Amendment (ostensibly) abolished slavery. In the view of DuVernay, and through the words of the people she interviews and every bit of data she shares, slavery was never eliminated. It was repackaged.
DuVernay tells the story of lives stolen at the whim of an unfair justice system, buttressing her point with statistics on just how many black men and women have been disproportionately jailed over the last several decades. She also dives into the minutia of the process, including dubious plea bargains and corporation-benefiting prison labor, all while reiterating that politicians and other public figures held power for years based in part on promises to lock up scary black people (and still do).
Her approach also calls to mind an idea that has been oft-debated since Donald Trump began his run for president: not every story has two sides. 13th doesn't waste time supposing reasonable intentions of lawmakers and law enforcers who may not have realized the long-term impact of their actions. Instead, she rightly keeps the focus on the people who've suffered. Whether those who've profited from black incarceration meant harm or not is irrelevant: harm is the reality, and that harm-causing system remains rigidly in place.
As laid out so tragically and persuasively by DuVernay and her producer/editor Spencer Averick, the shock that stemmed from the loss of slavery was gradually resolved, and society's coffers replenished, through the repression of criminals' rights. America is supposedly a land of second chances and rehabilitation, yet those convicted of crimes are subjected to suppression and subjugation that mirrors slavery and the Jim Crow years that followed.
And it's no surprise who makes up an unexplainably large amount of those criminals. In 1970, 350,000 people were imprisoned in the United States. That number now tops 2 million, and over 30 percent are black. This is not matched by demographics or population growth; it's not because black people are unreasonably violent. It's because rules are in place to keep certain groups impoverished, desperate, and punished when they cross an arbitrarily decided-upon line.
Netflix has reinforced its reputation as a home for documentaries (Making a Murderer, the Oscar-nominated Virunga, this year's acclaimed Amanda Knox) but 13th breaks new ground. DuVernay feels forcefully compelled to shred the social fabric of this country, exposing how slavery under a different name is still very much slavery. It should be required viewing for anyone who makes their home here.