Netflix documentary ‘13th’ traces economics of slavery to mass incarceration in America

Emily Gray Brosious


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The 13th Amendment of the Constitution is often credited with abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States. But as film director Ava DuVernay unveils in her new Netflix documentary “13th,” a major loophole in the 13th Amendment has allowed certain parties — parties interested in maintaining slavery-era profit margins — to perpetuate the practice of slavery under the guise of crime, punishment and prison labor.

“This is storytelling on a major scale, and a documentary that has tremendous value and importance,” Peter Hammond writes for Deadline.

The film, which was the first documentary ever to be screened as the opening-night film at the New York Film Festival, sheds light on how the 13th Amendment allows slavery to be used as a legal form of punishment for convicted criminals, and how that constitutional loophole translates to the lived experience of many black Americans.

“Ava DuVernay’s new documentary chronicles how our justice system has been driven by racism from the days of slavery to today’s era of mass incarceration,” Amy Goodman explains in her introduction to a recent discussion with the filmmaker, whose previous work includes the 2014 film “Selma.”

DuVernay and her co-writer and editor Spencer Averick take viewers all the way back to the end of slavery, through the Jim Crow South, the civil rights movement, modern mass incarceration, and into the divisive and racially charged political climate of the current U.S. presidential election. The narrative integrates a rich selection of interview commentaries from social activists and political leaders, including Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander and Van Jones.

“We trace, decade by decade, generation by generation, politician by politician, president by president, each decision and how it has led to this moment,” DuVernay told Goodman in a “Democracy Now!” interview. “And we try to give, you know, gosh, some historical context to what is happening now. And I think people get in this present moment, and they start to forget that we’re a part of a legacy. And this legacy is rich, but it’s also very violent. And so, we try to kind of get into the deep layers in this film.”

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