WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH ’13TH’.
Despite BAFTA-winning ‘13th’ being released on Netflix four years ago, I, like many others, didn’t know that the documentary existed until recently. However, after viewing, I believe it is one of the most harrowingly captivating and eye-opening educational films and that everybody needs to watch it in order to understand racism today and throughout modern history. Despite growing up in England, I was aware of America’s extensive prison population, and at the beginning of the documentary Barack Obama chillingly tells that while the USA is home to 5% of the world’s population, it is also responsible for 25% of prisoners. Before watching, I didn’t understand why the figures were so extreme, and I was disturbed to realise that the abolition of the slave trade was woven intensely into the fabric of the reason.
“People say all the time:
I don’t understand how people could’ve tolerated slavery. If I was living at that time, I would have never tolerated anything like that.
…And the truth is, we are living in this time, and we are tolerating it.”– Bryan Stevenson
Simply, ‘13th’, directed by Ava DuVernay (who also created ‘Selma’), is about the impact of the 13th amendment on African Americans. So, firstly, what are amendments? In basic terms, they represents the highest laws of the land in the USA. So, what is the 13th amendment? It was written to abolish the slave trade and states: it is unconstitutional for someone to be used as a slave, “except as a punishment for crime”.
The abolition of the slave trade coincided with the end of the Civil War (1861 – 1865), and as southern States, which relied heavily on the use of black people as slaves for monetary gains, saw their economy fall into disarray, a rebuild was mounting. This loophole in the 13th amendment was abused in line with the behaviour that slave traders have only ever known. The documentary goes on to show how quickly black people, who were free at last, were arrested for loitering and being homeless, being criminalised for something you and I would find other-worldly to be labelled as a crime. They were thrown back into the system that took advantage of their oppression, and now, as punishment for their ‘crimes’, they were required to provide labour to reconstruct the economy of the south. From here, racial discrimination has filtered down through generation to generation, and explains the history of how, in part, racism still exists today in the forms of the exploitation of black people for cheap labour through American prisons, the overrepresentation of black people as criminals in the media, police brutality and the injustice of the justice system. I was disturbed to find that companies such as Microsoft have been linked to using prison labour to cut their costs. And yes, the 13th amendment still stands like such to this day.
If you want to understand systemic racism, if you want to know where, in part, police brutality stems from, or you want to know why attitudes of both politicians and people has not improved since the abolition of the slave trade, or why black people are angry by their treatment today, this documentary is your answer. I have not been shocked, jolted and moved by a film, documentary or TV programme as I have been by 13th in a long time. It is not an easy watch – it’s loaded and explicit with information, images and videos – however, it is an essential educational tool that has been produced well, and proves how history is subjective to the person it is told by. The documentary is long, so you may wish to watch it in parts in order to effectively take in the information.
I do not believe it is right for me to detail any more of the documentary, as this story should be told and is best told by the ancestors of the sufferers, those who have relentlessly studied the history, and those who to this day face the consequences of the history created by their oppressors. 13th is captivating, yet disturbing, and I’m devastated for every black person who was enslaved across the world, for those who were and are exploited due to the 13th amendment and for everyone who suffers its consequences, and the pain of racial abuse, today.
Watch 13th on Netflix or Youtube.