13TH is a Netflix original documentary film directed by director Ava DuVernay, who has become one of the most important voices in TV & Film today. She also happens to be the brilliant director of Selma and When They See Us, among others. This doc is an elegantly crafted and devastatingly thorough journey through America’s long dark history of institutionalized racism.
The movie is essential viewing for anyone that wants to have an intelligent conversation about why so many voices are calling for a radical re-examination of how Police, Prosecutors, Prisons, Probation and even Public Defenders currently function.
The thesis of the movie is that after the 13th amendment abolished slavery, the criminal justice system became the new mechanism for keeping African Americans in various forms of bondage. The goal was to put in place “lawful” systems to maintain the status quo of social control and free labor. Starting with convict lease programs and lynchings, moving through segregation and Jim Crow and into our current state of mandatory minimums and for-profit mass incarceration, 13TH is a wake-up call for anyone still laboring under the lie that we are living in a “post-racial” society.
For our purposes (i.e. the lawyers among us), 13TH is more than just a hard-hitting history lesson or a scathing indictment of our criminal justice industrial complex. If you know my work, you know that I believe that the way we win at trial or sentencing is by harnessing the power of visual, emotion-based storytelling. This film is a testament to the unimpeachable persuasive power of pictures.
13TH repeatedly underscores the role that emotionally evocative images have had in shaping perceptions of race and culture, for good and for evil. Not more than five minutes in, DuVernay tackles the 1915 silent film Birth of a Nation, showing how this wildly popular piece of fiction painted an ugly new picture of black and white after emancipation – one of southern whites as martyrs and heroes and black people as marauding monsters that needed to be subdued by any means necessary. This movie was widely given credit for causing the resurgence of the KKK in America. Indeed, the Klan’s creepy cross burning ritual did not exist before the movie. This was a cinematic image manufactured by D.W. Griffith that took on a life of its own. Birth of a Nation is “Exhibit A”, for DuVernay’s argument that, for better or for worse, movies can indeed change the world.
The film also looks at other examples of how emotionally charged visuals can effect radical social change. The famous image of “Slave Gordon”, his back shredded by so many lashes from a master’s whip, did more to further the cause of abolition than any speech or pamphlet could. The images of fire hoses and dogs on the nightly news were fuel for the exploding civil rights movement. The revolting photo of fourteen-year-old Emmet Till in his casket, murdered and mutilated for the crime of flirting with a white woman, made the reality of racial hate impossible to ignore. Knowing the impact the image would have, Till’s own mother insisted that the whole world see what savages did to her child.
Flash forward to present day, and imagine where we would be right now without the revolution of digital video and social media. Today it’s George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks. Yesterday it was Eric Gardner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, and Philando Castile. Unfortunately, the list goes on. But I would argue those images, more than anything else, have become the catalyst for a new wave of activism and social change in America.
This film, in and of itself, is a riveting example of how a well-crafted, visually stunning story can change the way people perceive and walk the world. An exquisitely enraging mechanism for social change, 13TH should be required viewing for every legislator, law enforcement officer, every prosecutor, judge, every student, indeed every American who cares about the soul and future of our country.
Check it out, watch it with your kids, talk about it. Then let’s work together to maximize the JUSTICE and minimize the SYSTEM.