“13th" is an exposé on high crime rates in America with a focus on unfair treatment of the African American community. This documentary examines the American criminal justice system with regard to the effects of racially fueled political decisions throughout history. The film shows the justice system to be a form of “modern slavery” with prisoners being put to work manufacturing products for large corporations (and the title refers to the 13th Amendment which allows a man to be put into servitude as the result of a crime). It dives deep into the disproportion between Caucasian males that will spend time in prison (1 out of 17) compared to African American males (1 out of 3). While the statistics are rather shocking, the truly interesting piece of this documentary is its attention to historical events that led to rising prison numbers. Unfortunately, I found much of the rhetoric in this documentary to be misled. Director Ava DuVernay argues that it was unfair to charge African American men more harshly for using crack than Caucasian men for using cocaine during the Reagan era, but why are we ignoring the fact that they were illegally using drugs? I am not disputing that the punishment should be comparable for these similar offenses, but it is bothersome that the film fails to point out that they all deserved jail time for illegally using or distributing drugs. I noticed a similar theme when the filmed touched on the events in Ferguson, Missouri. It praises the protesters for standing up for what they believe, but at the same time it seeks to absolve the rioters of any wrongdoing as they vandalize and steal. I’m not going to take a political stance on these situations but it’s bothersome that the directors get so caught up in their statistics that they miss an opportunity to remind us that illegal actions have consequences. I appreciate that this documentary touches on the power of labeling. It's a lot easier to envision a person as guilty when they are labeled as a burglar than if we called them a man accused of burglary. I think that this is the powerful statement about the unfair reputation given to innocent African Americans through labeling. It is no surprise that this is nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar. The real question is whether the Academy will gravitate toward the political vote, the historical vote for O.J. Simpson, or the emotional vote for something like "Life, Animated." “13th" presents a lot of good arguments regarding the disproportionate statistics regarding inmates based on race; however, I can’t call this information “truth” I believe that the editors and director irresponsibly misrepresent the fact that most of these people do deserve to be in jail for doing something illegal, maybe just for a shorter sentence.
[Pictured: “13th” provides powerful interviews but forgets to mention that illegal actions should require some form of justice]