“13th” discusses inequality of incarceration

Editor’s note: The U.S. observes February as Black History Month to honor African-American history. This section of The Guilfordian will feature a weekly film review centering on films that have been significant to African-American culture and served as a testament to African-American history and the fight for freedom and fundamental rights.


The U.S. accounts for less than 5 percent of the world’s population. However, in 2011, the U.S. held almost 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

A clip of former President Barack Obama announcing this statistic is the opening of director Ava DuVernay’s film, “13th,” a passionate documentary depicting the disproportionality of African-Americans in prison.

The film focuses on the 13th Amendment, which stated that slavery and indentured servitude would no longer exist.

However, there was one exception. The 13th Amendment did not apply to individuals who were convicted of crimes.

With this loophole in place, many politicians used it to for their own advantage, and thus came the waves of mass incarceration targeting people of color. From 1970, when the number of people of color in prison was 357,292 people, until 2014, when it reached over 2.3 million prisoners, the number of incarcerated people has only increased. The film does a brilliant job of showing the progression of the American prison system.

The film mentions many important aspects that contributed to mass incarceration from slavery until present day. As I watched, there were many aspects of the film that struck me.

The original, “The Birth of a Nation,” helped bring about the second era of the KKK. It is regarded as an important film in history. The director, D.W. Griffith brought about the idea of cross burning and the practice was used after the film’s release. It was also one of the first films to be displayed in the White House. The incumbent president at the time was Woodrow Wilson. This struck me because it truly shows how serious racism was in America at the time. With a title that sounds more patriotic than problematic, it would be expected to unify people rather than push them apart more. However, this film could be a representation of early 20th century patriotism.

The film also discussed the war on drugs, how much it affected communities of people of color and its true origin. The war on drugs is typically associated with Reagan, however, it didn’t begin with him. It was actually President Nixon who first brought about the idea of the war on drugs. The film discusses how the “southern strategy” was used to further push racism against African-Americans and appeal to the white voters, predominantly to garner the south’s support. Drugs were used to further incarcerate African-Americans. The “southern strategy” was used to not only garner the support of southerners, but of southern republicans to strengthen the party at the time. The use of racism as a key tactic to pull people in changed politics in the south.

Touching base on many presidents, Ronald Reagan further helped push the war on drugs, though at the time it wasn’t the largest issue. His strict approach appealed en masse to many voters who valued his take on the issue. The film discusses the damage it did, due to the reform passed and the false assumptions of how much it would help. His wife used a softer approach with the “Just Say No” campaign which helped further receive support, even from the community it targeted. At the time of the appeal for stronger drug reform, a poll displayed that Americans felt that it wasn’t the highest concern. However, Americans tended to favor candidates who highlighted strict reform policies. Reagan was strict with his policies, and this was a good factor for many voters.

There are many more points in the film that further discuss the issues that helped advance mass incarceration while damaging communities of color.

For example, a $30 billion dollar crime bill, which severely affected people of color, was implemented by controversial 42nd President Bill Clinton. During his Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, Bill Clinton apologized for its effects at a meeting of the NAACP. In addition, the existence of a major company that connects business people with politicians to create laws to propose in Congress was discussed. A quick search of the American Legislative Exchange Council won’t detail the amount of influence and power they pose over government, but the film does an exceptional job of describing their influence.

During the film, I kept thinking about how the prison system has affected me. About how my own father, an impressionable young man in the 80s, fell victim to its effects. I thought about other people I know, men of color, who were also affected. I’m startled by the fact that while 1 out of every 17 white males will be incarcerated, 1 in 3 black men will be jailed.

As I look at all the young African-American boys I know, I can only hope they won’t be put through the cycle.