As I watched 13th, I found the movie to be educational of the history of the criminal justice system and how we have arrived at this present moment. It is astonishing how people have used the 13th amendment as a weapon by distorting the amendment’s true purpose of giving people freedom and preventing slavery from ever happening again. It is truly a sad commentary that people throughout time spend their lives trying to prevent true equality for all.

History of slavery as an economic system

I was surprised at how much an economic focus slavery had (beyond the products of trade such as cotton or tobacco). Immediately after the Civil War’s ending, people in the southern states were scrambling to come up with ways to essentially re-enslave the African-Americans who were just freed from the terrors of slavery. The number of people who went and viewed the racist portrayal of African-American men and the glorification of the Klu Klux Klan was terrifying, and that President Woodrow Wilson had a viewing in the White House.

Jim Crow

As the movie reached the Jim Crow Era, I felt that no matter how many times the history is retold, it will always be difficult to see people treated as second-class citizens. When listening to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches, a dignity and grace that very few people can exhibit exude from his words and demeanor, qualities I greatly admire. His words were highly influential and strong, preaching non-violence as a means of achieving the goal of equal rights. The notion of sacrificing oneself in being arrested and turning the stigma (of being arrested as shameful) on its head was a brave strategy of challenging a system that was using arrests as a means of dividing.

Post-civil rights movement (Nixon)

            When President Nixon entered the White House, I was stunned at the amount of emphasis that his administration placed on “law and order.” The correlation between the rhetoric used and the true meaning of the rhetoric was very troubling to learn. History books do not even to a superficial level set out to explain this aspect of the Nixon presidency, and it should receive acknowledgement as one of the darker ideas of the administration. Sadly, the “dog-whistle” type of speech advanced on from Mr. Nixon, and eventually was being used by President Reagan in the 1980s. This too came as a surprise, because when thinking of Reagan’s presidency, it was more of the history revolving around U.S./Soviet Union relations, “Star Wars” defense, and the toppling of the Berlin Wall. It is disappointing to think that Reagan would carry the mantle of “dog-whistle” politics to justify the imprisonment of African Americans and Latinos. Additionally, the continuation of a war on drugs can only be looked at as an insidious plan to incarcerate more, and is not an ill that can be subsided by the good that is pushed forward by the “Just Say No” program, started by First Lady Nancy Reagan.

Bill Clinton and Democratic Party Shift

One of the numerous surprising parts of the movie was the shift in political approach by the Democratic Party to the issue of crime. The Republicans for a long time had been the party of stoking the “law and order” fires, and even made the issue a focal point of the campaign that saw President George H.W. Bush get elected. The Willie Horton advertisement used against Governor Dukakis had sounded an alarm to Democrats that the strategy they employed for campaigns had not been working. When President Clinton campaigned for his first term, it was noticeable that the plan was to shift towards the center and try and appeal to people who were receptive to the “law and order” message. While I admire President Clinton and consider him one of our great presidents, even he has admitted that the legislation that he was endorsing, along with the rhetoric that he was spreading, was a mistake. Because of this shift (and the timing of the murder of Polly Klaas), policy went farther into the area of stricter crime policy, such as “Three Strikes and You’re Out” and the increase of mandatory minimum sentences. Both policies that were made into law only had the effect of further imprisoning African Americans and exacerbated an already major problem.


            This aspect of the film was one that shocked me the most. I did not realize how much influence this organization had on the policies that were being advocated, and I majored in Political Science! I found it disturbing how in denial one of the interviewed elected officials (with ties to ALEC) was about the impact of the organization, and the distorted viewpoint he shared for the “changes” made by the organization. What appears to be going on is a changing of the game. Instead of monetizing the prison system, the organization is shifting its focus to other means in the criminal justice system of profiting at the expense of minorities, with bail and probation.

Concluding Thoughts

            To conclude, the way that the movie was presented a very thought provoking experience. I am also glad that it was presented in a manner which did not portray a strong bias, as the facts were presented in an objective manner, and opposing viewpoints were given airtime with the people chosen to be interviewed. I am thankful for having been assigned this movie to watch, and would recommend that everyone watch it.

Nathan Ayala