Mass Incarceration: Lessons Learned from Ava DuVernay’s 13th

As part of our efforts to deepen understanding and conversations around our racial justice work, the Action Alliance held a staff screening in November of Ava Duvernay’s documentary, “13th”. DuVernay, who directed the award-winning movie, “Selma”, created “13th” to examine the ways in which state control over African-Americans in the U.S. has changed shape since the 13th amendment was passed to abolished slavery. Action Alliance intern, Ki’ara Montgomery, shares her reflections on the film.

I was at my internship at the Action Alliance when I received the invitation: Join us for the showing of the documentary 13th. I heard about the film for the first time the night prior to receiving the invitation and I immediately knew that 13th was a film I didn’t want to miss.

As I watched 13th I was surrounded by troubling truths that I assumed true, but never had the information to fully believe because it was based on a history that wasn’t taught to us in school. Despite the feelings that were building up inside me as I continued to watch, I held myself together… until a little over halfway through the film.

I couldn’t control myself any longer. What started as a few tears falling down my face turned into uncontrollable sobbing and me fleeing the room in anger. It left me angry and confused. How could we let ourselves go back so far? Why are we accepting a new-age form of slavery? Why are we repeating the history that our ancestors and many of us have been fighting so hard to reform? I didn’t understand and honestly, I still don’t.

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This film shows how the adoption of the 13th Amendment transitioned African-Americans from being enslaved in a historical context, to a new-age slavery due to a loophole that abolished slavery for everyone except criminals. This new-age form of slavery includes Jim Crow, lynching, and criminalization. Director Ava DuVernay gathered a unique group of people from various backgrounds to talk about these issues, including a representative from ALEC, a group that was heavily criticized in the film for their contributions toward laws that only worked to increase incarceration rates. That aspect is one that makes this documentary notable, in my opinion. Much like DuVernay’s use of words.

In 13th, not only do we hear the words that are used to criminalize black people in America, but DuVernay constantly shows us those words. The word CRIMINAL appears on the screen each time it is verbalized in the documentary. For me, each time this word was said and showcased, it invoked a deeper level of emotion than the time before. We hear and see the use of words such as super-predator, wolf pack, and gang on the news, in newspapers, and even from political figures. These words instantly lead your mind to the word CRIMINAL and some associate them all to the word Black.

History has played its part in this word association and the word choice. The documentary takes you back to 1915 and the release of The Birth of a Nation. This movie glorified the Ku Klux Klan, portraying them as heroes for ridding the nation of the ”black beasts.” These “beasts” would rape your wives and kill you if they weren’t tamed. These “beasts” were Black men. This was the beginning of criminalizing language and depictions of Black men.

Do you understand the architecture around an idea that you hold in your head? The design of it, the very construction of it is most likely not truly yours, but something that was given to you. The idea you have in your head was not built by you per se, but built by preconceived notions that were passed down generation after generation. – Ava DuVernay

Leon Neyfakh made a great point in his article covering 13th. “Ava DuVernay’s new documentary about mass incarceration made me feel ashamed[1],” the article began. “I thought about how much I’d gotten used to in just under two years of covering the criminal justice system.”

Neyfakh not only recognized his gradual blindness to mass incarceration, but he also tackled a communal ignorance to the situation. “How it could be that so many people could have ever grown used to the moral catastrophes that were slavery and Jim Crow,” he states. “How did they not wake up every morning, nauseated and panicked about what was happening? The same way people like me wake up in 2016 and take it as a given that there are 2.3 million people living in cages, a third of them Black.”

Image source: Ki’ara Montgomery

Not being aware of these harsh realities and not taking the time to educate ourselves on the injustices that people in our society face daily, only makes us part of the issue. If more people were aware of the actual truth, would take advantage of the opportunity to view and analyze this information, and realize that we are living in a cycle that will never end until we end it ourselves, this film could be beneficial to most of our society. But if we don’t take the time to educate ourselves or we refuse to believe the truth that is constantly staring us in the face while stabbing our communities in the back, we will continue to be stuck in this vicious cycle.

Have you seen the documentary 13th? What are your thoughts on mass incarceration? Let us know in the comments!

Ki’ara Montgomery is a Senior at Virginia Commonwealth University with plans to graduate in May 2017. She is obtaining a bachelor’s degree in public relations, and minors in business and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies. While in school, she has had opportunities with VCU AmeriCorps, Culture4MyKids, VCU School of Education, and the Richmond Raiders. She is currently interning with the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance with a focus in development, policy, and communications.

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[1] Neyfakh, Leon. “I’m a Criminal Justice Reporter, and Ava DuVernay’s New Doc About Mass Incarceration Shocked Me.” Slate Magazine, Slate, 6 Oct. 2016,


 This article is part of the Action Alliance’s blog series on Virginia’s Trauma-to-Prison-Pipeline.

The Trauma-to-Prison-Pipeline (aka “School-to-Prison-Pipeline”) fails young people who are experiencing high levels of toxic stress and/or trauma by responding in overly punitive ways to youth who exhibit normal reactions to trauma and toxic stress.

Youth of color and youth with disabilities are particularly targeted for disproportionately high levels of heavy-handed, punitive responses to vague and subjective infractions in school, such as “defiance of authority”, or “classroom disruption”. Viewed from a trauma-informed lens, these same behaviors may signal youth who are suffering and struggling with ongoing effects of trauma.

 The Action Alliance believes that everyone deserves racially equitable responses that are compassionate and trauma-informed, and which build individual and community assets.

Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call 804.377.0335. 

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