2017 Oscar Nominee - Best Documentary


Director: Ava DuVernay

Released: 2016

View on: Netflix

*Note: This inaugural post is part of a series I am writing on the 2017 Oscar nominees for best documentary.

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” -Amendment XIII, United States Constitution

13th reviews the history of the United States’ enslavement of black and brown people, beginning with slavery and including our present day misuse of the criminal justice system. The experts who are interviewed explain in a clear and concise way how we got here. History has a way of sticking around – the face may change, but it still lingers.

The documentary discusses how Americans have been taught to believe that people of color, especially men of color, are inherently violent. Of particular interest to me were four examples:

  1. A societal belief that black men are likely to rape white women, and cannot be trusted. This myth is particularly absurd given the fact that many white slave owners raped their black slaves regularly. It has been invoked to justify the murders of hundreds if not thousands of black men throughout our history. One of the most famous examples is the murder of Emmett Till, a 14 year old boy who was violently beaten and murdered while on a trip to visit relatives after being accused of whistling at a white woman in 1955. His murderers were acquitted by an all-white jury.
  2. The use of mandatory minimums and disallowance of parole for individuals convicted of even minor drug offenses. A stark example of the racism our country has put forth through drug policy is that of mandatory minimums for crack vs powder cocaine offenses. African Americans are more likely to be arrested for crack offenses. Federal law requires the same mandatory minimum for 1 gram of crack as for 18 grams of powder cocaine – until 2010, the disparity was 1 gram of crack to 100 grams of powder cocaine.
  3. Recent murders of black Americans, particularly black men, by peace officers and individuals who are acting under stand your ground laws, for simply walking down the street, asking questions, or running away. This has been happening for years, but has been spotlighted in the past few years. Say their names: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown...the list goes on.
  4. The prison industrial complex. 13th explains how the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Correctional Corporation of America (CCA) worked in the states to pass laws like SB 1070 in Arizona, which allowed law enforcement to stop anyone who even “looked” like they might be undocumented. ALEC has also been working on bills to privatize probation and parole activities, according to the documentary. Laws like this are not meant to keep us safe – they have allowed for some people to get rich by locking people away for minor crimes, and sometimes for no crime at all.

13th discusses these incidents and many more as it tells the story of how our modern systems perpetuate racism against people of color in the United States. I really liked this documentary because it does a great job of tying our racist history to present day, and helps to open our eyes so that we can start asking more questions about current events.

So what can you do? I find that the Black Lives Matter movement keeps a good pulse on current events and organizes a lot of activities at local levels. At the national level, the ACLU is a great organization to follow. And here in Texas, where I live, we are lucky to have the Texas Jail Project, which works to improve conditions for people who are incarcerated in Texas county jails. I encourage everyone to check out these organizations to identify actions you can take and, if possible, to donate money to their efforts.