13th Amendment documentary: Slavery, hypocrisy, and profit

Director Ava DuVernay's cogent documentary, 13TH, exposes a broken democracy.
Director Ava DuVernay’s cogent documentary, 13TH, exposes a broken democracy.

As someone with a background in broadcast journalism and film, I tend to be extra critical of documentaries. Too many tend to be poorly structured, indulgent, boring, uninformative, or some combination thereof. But “13TH” is among the more cogent and compelling documentaries I’ve seen in years.

Director Ava DuVernay, who also brought us the fact-based feature “SELMA,” took a pure documentary approach to explore the history and ramifications of the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution — the one that abolished slavery. Allegedly.

In “13TH,” DuVernay exposes the hypocrisy of American society at the time, when former slaves soon after were tagged as criminals, and traces the hypocrisy to today’s so-called war on drugs and privately run for-profit prisons. Given the sad state of public education in the U.S. these days, you might want to file this one under, “What I should’ve learned in history class.”

Prison reform, the war on drugs, and America’s criminal justice system are topics that tend to dominate political debate each election cycle. Rare cogent documentaries like “13TH” likely will impact the discussion in a way other incompetent-yet-well-intended documentaries fail to achieve.

As the Pledge of Allegiance dictates, we are, after all, meant to be a nation “with liberty and justice for all.”

At this time “13TH” is streaming on Netflix. For nonsubscribers, look for it at your local cinema or be sure to catch it when it’s released on DVD and other streaming outlets.

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