The Deal With Documentaries: ‘13th’ delves into how prominent inequality still is
The 2016 documentary explores legislation that has led to racially disproportionate prison overcrowding.
Feb. 1 marked the start of Black History Month. Every year during this month, students across the nation are taught about the civil rights movement and the leaders of that time. The first amendment made to the Constitution that addressed unfair racial treatment was the 13th Amendment. Ratified on Dec. 6, 1895, it abolished slavery, except in the case that it was being used as punishment for a crime. That exception is what the documentary 13th focuses on.
Since the civil rights movement, the idea that black people are still being profiled and abused has not been accepted as the truth by many. Despite the amendments that granted black citizens freedom, voting rights and full equality in the eyes of the law, 13th shows audiences that yes, the black population is still unfairly targeted by legislation. To do this, the documentary zooms in on racial equality in the prison system.
From 1990 to 2000, the domestic prison population rose from 1,179,200 to 2,015,300. A point of acceleration of this dramatic increase is the 1994 crime bill, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act signed into law by former President Bill Clinton. This bill incentivized arrests and incarcerations made. This led to the militarization of small police departments, which in turn caused the over-patrolling of communities that were stereotypically “criminal.” In addition, the bill introduced minimum sentences which made it so certain offenses (mostly drug-related) carried a sentence that was non-negotiable. While the laws were not directly aimed at the black community, that is who it affected the most.
Former President Barack Obama made efforts to reverse the effects of the 1994 crime bill by commuting the sentence of 330 nonviolent drug offenders before leaving office in 2016. But with a new commander in chief, some may wonder if these movements will continue.
President Donald Trump's main focus so far has been foreign policy, with less of a focus on internal reform. It seems that efforts to correct the past aggressions against the black community have taken a back seat to new aggressions against another population.
Recently, new executive orders have been signed that appear to target the Muslim community. President Trump signed orders that put a travel restriction on citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries. As a result, citizens with valid travel visas and green cards to America have been barred from reentering. Some have been removed from planes they had already boarded, and others were detained. Once those who have been allowed to return arrive at American airports, lawyers have shown support by offering their services pro bono to any who were mistreated by travel officials.
While the laws behind the mistreatment of the black community go much further back than the laws against the Muslim community, they share a similarity: They have been made to look like a source of terror.
In the 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, the black man was portrayed as a source of fear, as someone the population needed to protect themselves against. This is a parallel between how the U.S. is being told to fear the Muslim population. President Trump’s reasoning behind his ban was to protect the U.S. against terrorism. By banning all citizens of majority-Muslim nations, there is an unjust association forming between Muslims and terrorists.
13th is a film that not only addresses age-old issues, but also offers insight into recognizing possible new sources of discrimination. By understanding the past forms of inequality, we as a population can recognize and stop new forms of unfair treatment before they have the opportunity to detrimentally impact our history.
The film comes to a close with a montage of the recent shootings and protests that have encapsulated the nation and focuses on the genius of the Black Lives Matter movement. It highlights how the movement is a stand for all lives, not just black lives; it’s about “re-humanizing [the black community] as a people.” 13th offers an insight to an issue that everyone has been aware of, but not everyone has been able to connect to.
MOVE gives 13th 4 out of 5 stars