Unlearning the False Narrative: The Film “13th,” Racist Housing Policies and Being an Anti-Racist

By Mary Lacey, project assistant, Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness

13th logo

Like many others during quarantine, I have turned to film and TV to learn about institutional racism. As a white American, I have benefited from the exploitation and oppression of Black and Indigenous people. It is my responsibility to learn about and dismantle racist systems that I benefit from to help end racial injustice. Although conversations about racism are necessary, they are happening too late. It is a privilege for me to learn about racism instead of experiencing it every day.

A film that sparked my attention was the Emmy Award-winning documentary 13th. Netflix’s 2016 release, directed by Ava DuVernay, highlights the role of the legal system’s intentional role in prisons and policing that disproportionately criminalizes Black Americans. It spurred me to learn more about the impact of racism, especially in housing.

The film’s title refers to the 13th Amendment, known for abolishing slavery in 1865, but resulting in the continuation of forced labor. The amendment states that “[n]either 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” (U.S Const. amend. XIII. Sec. 1). In the years after the Civil War, Black Americans were frequently falsely accused of crimes and imprisoned; and because the amendment does not provide protections against slavery for those convicted of a crime, America’s broken legal system began imprisoning people of color disproportionately. The film argues that America uses the 13th Amendment, through the legal system, to continue slavery.

Ava DuVernay
Ava DuVernay, a Black filmmaker and director of 13th, also directed Netflix’s When They See Us, recreating the true story of five Black teenagers convicted of a crime they did not commit. Photo from IMDb by Steve Granitz – © 2014 Steve Granitz – Image courtesy gettyimages.com

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