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Review: ‘13th’ traces racist roots of prison system

Tom Long
The Detroit News

When Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” about the prison industrial complex, was released in October it came with a bit of unstated hope that prison reforms might well be on the way.

That hope was pretty much extinguished on Nov. 8. What seemed like an enlightening message suddenly became a dire one as a move away from privately run prisons turned back on itself and “13th” became a prime example of how art is altered by social context.

What’s wrong with running a prison like a business? Well, businesses need clients, in this case prisoners. So the justice system ends up imprisoning ever larger numbers of folks just to keep things humming along. The result? America holds five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prison population.

But “13th” looks at much more than just the privatization of prisons. It traces the racist bent of imprisonment ever since the end of the Civil War.

Southern states were used to free labor, so they ended up passing laws that would target blacks and put them on chain gangs, which would continue to provide free labor. Over the years all sorts of mechanisms and laws — mandatory sentencing, three strikes, far more harsh sentences for crack cocaine than powder cocaine, plea bargains — have made prison populations overwhelmingly black and brown.

A black man has a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in his lifetime and thus losing voting rights, employment opportunities, familial bonds, etc. A white man’s chances of imprisonment are 1 in 17.

DuVernay lays out her argument with an assortment of talking heads (Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Angela Davis, Henry Louis Gates, Van Jones), statistics and personal anecdotes. It’s all very alarming and upsetting and terrifying. Now it’s all the more so.

Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.




Running time: 100 minutes