The documentary exposing America’s racist prison system

Selma director Ava DuVernay’s Netflix doc centres on the 13th amendment that abolished slavery, and the loopholes that aided racial inequality and a for-profit system

The first trailer for Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary The 13th has been revealed. The film will explore the history and implications of the 13th amendment – the constitutional change that abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime. DuVernay delves into how the amendment facilitated a huge, imposing prison state in the United States, with the biggest prison population of anywhere in the world. 

As the film's synopsis reads: “The progression from that second qualifying clause to the horrors of mass criminalisation and the sprawling American prison industry is laid out by DuVernay with bracing lucidity. With a potent mixture of archival footage and testimony from a dazzling array of activists, politicians, historians, and formerly incarcerated women and men, DuVernay creates a work of grand historical synthesis.”

The trailer for The 13th maps out the direction of the film: tracing mass imprisonment back 150 years, focusing in on the Clinton and Reagan presidencies, and the policies that created a for-profit system and large state requirements for prison populations. Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump make appearances for their own shortcomings in encouraging such a system run on racial inequality.

DuVernay unpacks the system's unfair treatment of people of colour, particularly black men, who are the highest democraphic incarerated in the country at 37 per cent of the prison population, and the effect it has had on America's most marginalised communities. 

In a recent op-ed for CNN, The Wire's Michael K Williams detailed the racial undertones of America's War on Drugs. “We now know, 45 years later, the War on Drugs wasn't meant to make America safer or more productive. It was meant to mute President Richard Nixon's toughest critics, to criminalise black people and so-called anti-war hippies,” he wrote.

“The War on Drugs is a war on people—and more specifically, black and brown people, whom it has sought to demonize and silence, criminalising generations of youth of color and creating severe drug-sentencing laws ultimately to target and incarcerate communities of colour.”

He continued: “The effects of the War on Drugs have been, and continue to be, devastating. The millions of parentless homes, the heartbreaking struggles with addiction, the financial desperation and the overall feeling that systems were built to hurt, not help, are painful consequences of racially motivated policies that continue rippling throughout our communities. This 'war' has left an unforgivable blight on black communities across the country. And yet it still rages.”

The 13th will be available on Netflix on October 7.