• Isabelle Osborne

Reflecting on '13th'

It is vital that we educate ourselves on the systematic flaws within our society. Racism is not solely associated with individuals, but can be seen within a whole system. If we want to move from an era of ignorance to an era of change, we must educate ourselves on the reality that racism still exists. One of the most influential methods of carrying out self-education is through books and films, whether fictional or non-fictional, as it is by visualising and witnessing the devastating impact of racism that people will begin to realise they have long been ignorant to inherent issues within their societies.

Directed by Ava DuVernay, 13th is a film-documentary that shines a light on police brutality and the failures of the justice system in the US, and how the 13th Amendment provided the building blocks for criminalising African-Americans. Featuring Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander and many more prominent activists and academics, the Netflix phenomenon brings home the devastating impact a corrupt, unjust system has on the black community.

Rather than offering a review, I want to outline some of the things that shocked and horrified me during my watching of the fantastic documentary, in order to encourage you to watch it. I hope that you too will begin to consider the issues explored and feel compelled to educate yourself.


I was interested to hear that the USA has the highest incarceration in the world; despite holding only 5% of the world’s population, it holds a quarter of the world’s incarcerated population. Criminality is a serious issue in America. With mass incarceration comes increased police violence, and African-Americans are 12 times more likely to fall victim to use of force upon their arrest.

In 1864, the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, in the hope that this would unleash racial tolerance and acceptance amongst American citizens. However, the death of Emmett Till, one of too many African-Americans who lost their lives to racist brutality, is evidence that change was not seen.

There is a clear issue with the amendment: it grants slavery and involuntary servitude if such is punishment for a crime. This means that anyone deemed a criminal by the state is not protected by the Amendment. The illusory correlation between the black population and criminality that came to light after this time as a result of horrific racist ideology, not least due to the work of President Nixon and Reagan, is what shines a light on the fact that racial toleration was only seen on paper.

Rather than unleashing a new era of acceptance, the Jim Crow laws that soon followed the abolition of slavery gave African-American's permanent second class status, and black activists were soon presented as criminals by the media. Black criminality was aided by The Birth of a Nation (1915), which presented black people as cannibals and rapists and was aired in the White House. The US saw devastating lynching between the reconstruction era and World War II, on the grounds that the black victims had done something criminal and deserved punishment. Often, their murder was rooted in racist ideology of the white suprematists.

The injustices of the US justice system considered in the documentary is really astounding. 97% of the prison population in the US take a plea bargain (taking a lower sentence without trial rather than risking a much higher sentence if you are found guilty at trial), so they never go to trial. The system traps people, overwhelming people of colour, into criminality, offering freedom if they admit guilt to crimes they didn’t commit. This subsequently strips individuals of the rights they won in the civil rights movement - regardless of whether they are guilty or not, the state brands them as such without a fair trial. Police brutality is excused on the grounds of the suppression of criminals, but it is the state that is projecting the label of criminality onto innocent people. The corruption is brutally obvious.

If we ignore the reality of race relations in the world today, we cannot have informed discussions on how society can change. If you want to understand the reality of the racial injustices in the US, you must watch 13th.

All facts, figures and images featured in this review are cited to 13th (Netflix).

Featured image courtesy of Luke Michael on Unsplash. Image license can be found here. No changes were made to this image.

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