NEW YORK (Reuters) – It has been 150 years since slavery was officially abolished in the United States, but documentary “13th” argues that it is still alive in the form of mass incarceration that disproportionately affects black people.
Using TV footage, music, and interviews with academics, politicians and former prisoners, director Ava DuVernay portrays African-Americans as remaining enslaved, dating back to lynchings, the battle for civil rights, imprisonments for drug offenses, stop and frisk laws, and the current spate of police killings of unarmed black civilians.
The U.S. prison population rose from 357,000 in 1970 to 2.3 million in 2014, the documentary notes. While black men account for some 6.6 percent of the U.S. population, they currently make up 40.2 percent of the prison population.
DuVernay, best known for directing the 2014 civil rights feature film “Selma,” grew up in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Compton, the birthplace of West Coast rap music.
“The community I grew up in, we don’t think of safety when we see the police … So it’s always been on my mind, and as I was an African-American studies major at UCLA, I was able to put that experience into a historical and cultural context and it really solidified my deep, deep interest in the space and this issue. I always knew I would make a film about it,” she said.
The documentary owes its title to the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which ended slavery in 1865. It finishes with videos of the deaths at police hands of black men Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Philando Castile and others over the past three years that have given rise to the Black Lives Matter protest movement
“The film deconstructs the 13th amendment, breaks down all of the repercussions, the echoes of that amendment throughout history to the present day,” said DuVernay.
The documentary received a standing ovation at the New York Film Festival last week and has a rare 100 percent positive rating on review aggregator Rottentomatoes.com.
It makes its debut on streaming platform Netflix on Friday, and DuVernay hopes it will serve as a call to action.
“You now can’t say, ‘gosh, I didn’t know that, that’s horrible.’ Now you know, so what do you do about it? Do you ask your politician about it, do you push for answers?
“Now it’s out in the world and we’ll see what happens,” she said.
(Reporting by Reuters Television; Writing by Jill Serjeant; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)