Ava DuVernay’s BAFTA award-winning documentary 13th has recently seen a 4,500% increase in streams in light of the murder of George Floyd. The title is a reference to the thirteenth amendment, which states that American people should be subjected to “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime”. The film charts how this constitutional loophole has been used to essentially maintain a system of enslavement through the prison industry. 13th takes its viewers on a journey from the 1970s to the present – an era described as being “defined by mass-incarceration”, as in this time the U.S. prison populations skyrocket from 500,000 to 2,300,000.
One of the most poignant moments in the documentary was the exposition of the so-called war on drugs which led to this prison boom. The documentary reveals the heavy sentencing of crack-users, in comparison to other drugs. People from deprived areas were more likely to smoke crack, as it was far cheaper, and a significant proportion of the people who were targeted by police were ethnic minorities.
The documentary mixes real-life footage with interviews from academics as well as former prisoners and contains a musical score which seamlessly threads everything together. The film is also peppered with written facts and figures that appear on screen for just long enough for the viewer to commit them to memory. The film reveals that 97% of prison inmates never see a trial, and the U.S., despite holding only 5% of the world’s population, holds 25% of the world’s prison population. Prisoners represent free labour, and companies can profit from supplying everything from prison meals to prison phones. The viewer, by the end of the documentary, begins to understand that slavery was never abolished. It has just been rebranded.