Bessie Smith to Screen Ava DuVernay’s Award-winning Documentary ‘Thirteenth’

The award-winning documentary 13th explores the “intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States.”

A screening of Ava DuVernay’s award-winning documentary 13th will take place on Feb. 29 at 6 p.m. at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, 200 East Martin Luther King Blvd. A community discussion will follow.

The 2016 film takes a hard look at the historical implications of the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery except as a punishment for crimes. It delves into the social and political actions that have been weaponized against Black Americans since the amendment’s ratification.

The film begins with an audio clip of President Barack Obama stating that the United States had 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. It ends with graphic videos of fatal shootings of Black Americans by police.

During the documentary, researchers, advocates and victims of the prison system discuss how Black Americans, particularly Black men, are disproportionately impacted and unfairly targeted.

It focuses heavily on the prison industrial complex, the idea that prisons benefit from being filled as much as possible. DuVernay contends that the drastic increase in incarceration can be largely attributed to this system.

The film also demonstrates oppression can take an even more insidious form, particularly through language and association, rather than outright discriminatory policies. For example, phrases such as “super-predator” have become widespread, most often referencing young Black men. These labels, used by the media, dehumanize Black Americans and portray them as criminals that should be feared.

DuVernay, who directed the acclaimed films Selma and A Wrinkle in Time, made history at the Oscars in 2017 for 13th as the first Black woman nominated for “Best Documentary Feature.” The screening of 13th is free and open to the public, but registration is required for in-person attendance. For more information, visit, or call 423-266-8658.