13th : An Amendment With an Identity Crisis

2 minute read

Even if you think you know everything about the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery–or about the criminal-justice system–there will be something in Ava DuVernay‘s succinct, passionate documentary 13th to make your jaw drop.

Although the amendment guarantees freedom for all citizens “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” its meaning has been willfully distorted: mass incarceration, unreasonable drug laws and police brutality have become Jim Crow–like means to control the lives of people of color. The chances that a white man will go to prison at some point in his life are 1 in 17. For black men, that statistic is 1 in 3, according to the film. DuVernay has assembled a persuasive group of experts–including Angela Davis and Henry Louis Gates Jr.–to expand on, and illuminate, the distressing facts.

13th–currently available on Netflix–is dense with information, and it moves fast. But it’s also a story told in images, and the ones DuVernay has chosen ring not just with sadness and horror but also cautious optimism. If it’s wrenching to see the face of Emmett Till in his casket, swollen and defiled, there’s joy in the photographs that accompany the closing credits, images of black family life in America from the late 19th century to today, as it ought to be and sometimes has been. This could be the future of America, if we treat it not as an elusive dream but as an achievable reality.


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