The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution states: “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.”

Director Ava DuVernay’s "13th" is a documentary about mass incarceration and its deep, historical roots in America. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric about race is featured in the film. (Still from YouTube)

Director Ava DuVernay’s “13th” is a documentary about mass incarceration and its deep, historical roots in America. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric about race is featured in the film. (Still from YouTube)

Reading this passage, one would understandably take pride in the moment that the United States formally recognized the institution of slavery was finally over. We know now that the institution simply morphed into a new and legal system of slavery with the caveat being, “…except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

The gifted California director, screenwriter Ava Duvernay who has written or directed notable films such as ‘Selma’ and ‘Middle of Nowhere, has produced and directed her latest offering  “13th,” now streaming on Netflix.  “13th” is the clearest presentation of facts directly linking the 13th Amendment to the criminalization of African Americans and incarceration of over 2.2 million Americans, of which 40 percent are Black men.

“13th” is able to tie a string through American history chronologically, watching the prison industrial complex grow exponentially, decade by decade, from the time Nixon declared “Law and Order,” to Reagan’s “War on Drugs” through to today’s booming business of private prisons.

This documentary is skillfully able to combine music from artists like Public Enemy and Nina Simone, news footage from the 1950s and ‘60s and photos from the slave era to give the viewer the feeling that they’re walking through the pages of history. Visually it brings together graphic and uncensored photos of lynchings, news coverage of the horrific murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, coverage of the Central Park Five and pairs those images with commentary from activists like Angela Davis and politicians like Charlie Rangel, Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist. At each turn she shows the blatant connection between the arm of the law and issues that directly affect African Americans like the crack epidemic and mandatory minimum sentences.

Today, many think of slavery and racism as anecdotes or words on a page, Duvernay’s film is able to reveal the human side of the tragedy African Americans have faced throughout history at the hands of the criminal justice system. Watching “13th” you can easily see the progress that has been made by African Americans, but still cringe at the thought of our current political climate which is still reluctant to recognize the link between prisons, slavery and the position of African Americans in society as a whole.

The timeliness of this documentary is almost scary, with the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and our current political climate making it a must see for the entire family. You won’t hear this side of American history in class. It seems to end abruptly, and that appears to be intentional. At least one obvious message is that this is not the end of the story.