Ava DuVernay’s Thirteenth is a perfect extension of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. While it is equally successful in explaining the transition from one oppressive system to the next over the course of the United States’ racially charged history, it does so in a slightly different way. By forcing viewers to come face-to-face with the damning words and actions of powerful American leaders and policymakers from the 1960s to present day, DuVernay paints an indisputable picture of an intentional and somehow lawful mass system of oppression.
Since the end of traditional slavery in 1863, influential white Americans have been inventing new ways to oppress blacks and their success is to blame for the perpetuation of racial inequality in the United States. You may be wondering how, in this modern age, government agents and big business are able to oppress anyone based on race. The answer is simple: racially driven policies are now created and implemented without so much as a public nod to race itself. This is made possible by America’s colorblind approach to race that has developed since the 1960s.
The thirteenth amendment passed in 1865 states that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” It was responsible for the formal abolition of slavery in the United States. However, legal (not to mention unjust) race-based slavery was allowed to manifested itself through the use and abuse of the excerpt “except as punishment for crime…”
Like Alexander’s, DuVernay’s work explained and elaborated on this sentiment by explaining the racially biased nature of the justice system in the United States and its undercover function as a legal slaveholder. The biggest difference between Alexander’s and DuVernay’s enumeration of legal wrongdoings against minority populations (most specifically black men) is that DuVernay’s method of communication allowed for the deliverance of covertly racist messages on the creation of racially driven policy direct from the mouths of powerful American leaders to the eyes and ears of citizens.
This presentation was especially effective in the political construction of black criminality as a means to gain white constituent support by covertly oppressing black men first by Richard Nixon and then more convincingly by Ronald Reagan. Both presidents managed to intentionally turn the image of the black male into the image of a criminal, making it possible for policymakers to enact laws that have not only resulted in ridiculously high rates of incarceration nationwide but that actually intentionally oppress minority offenders, often taking away their ability to vote, receive any form of government aid, and get a job following their release from prison. Even worse, these policies make it easy to be convicted and difficult (and expensive) to escape once you have been incarcerated.