Ben Oliver

Banner image for 13th


One in three young black males is expected to go to jail or prison during his lifetime.
15 January 2017

Named after the 13th amendment to the US constitution, which 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.

Selma film-maker Ava DuVernay argues compellingly that the wording here introduced a loophole wherein a form of slavery can continue by simply charging people of crimes. When you look at the sheer numbers, it’s hard to deny this - the US houses 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, despite only having around 4 percent of the world’s population. The prisoners act as an unpaid labour force reminiscent of slavery.

13th presents its argument well, using a mix of interviews and archive footage to get the point across in an even handed and fair way. I’m not sure it sheds any new light on the topic but it organises the avalanche of information available into something easier to follow without dumbing anything down.

A couple of points: First, the film is too long and sometimes aimlessly meanders away from the central topic. Second, clips of Donald Trump rallies are used to illustrate the similarities to the KKK. These were taken out of context and, loathsome as he may be, it’s a little dishonest.

Finally, while I don’t question that there is an incarceration problem in the US, and that for-profit prisons only worsen the issue, I’m not sure how directly linked this is to the 13th amendment. If you were to ban free labour in prisons you would definitely close the loophole, but I don’t think you would reduce the amount of people being jailed unfairly since there is still money to be made. I suppose my main disagreement is with the title of the film rather than its content.

These are minor quibbles though; 13th is a rage-inducing and insightful look into what has become a massive problem in the so-called land of the free.