The much-talked-about Netflix documentary 13th shines a moving, galvanizing light upon the state of criminal justice in the U.S. Specifically, it examines a loophole in the 13th Amendment, ostensibly abolishing slavery, that has since allowed for the forced labor and mass incarceration of Americans (2.2 million, currently, and one in every three black men). Exploring brutality, the prison-industrial complex, and the very nature of freedom, the film also consults a number of leading experts on race—including Lavin speaker, New Yorker staff writer, and Columbia professor Jelani Cobb.
“Premised as a historical survey that maps the genetic link between slavery and today’s prison-industrial complex,” writes The Atlantic, “13th explodes the “mythology of black criminality,” as The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb at one point in the film refers to the successive and successful measures undertaken by political authorities to disempower African Americans over the last three centuries.”
Fortune describes it as “incendiary.” Slate says it’s the kind of film that “both makes us gasp and not stop gasping.” The Atlantic is calling it “a gorgeous, evocative, and maddening exploration of words: of their power, their roots, their permanence. It’s about those who wield those words and those made to kneel by them.” Complex calls it, simply, “the most important movie you’ll see this year … both informative and exhilarating,” while Entertainment Weekly says “it should be required viewing for every American citizen.”
In his keynotes, Cobb inspires audiences to work toward a dream of equity—of genuine democracy. He shows us that not only are the levers of justice in our hands, but that we can move them in the direction we see fit. And he reminds us that the only obstacle holding us back is the comforting illusion that we’ve already achieved our goals.