This month we review the Oscar-nominated documentary 13th by filmmaker Ava DuVernay. This film takes an in-depth look at the industrial prison complex and the 13th Amendment which contributes to mass incarceration. The film highlights the role that politics and laws continue to play in perpetuating racial and social injustice.
The film begins by highlighting the fact the United States continues to lead the world in the total number of people incarcerated, although the United States contains only 5 percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Not surprisingly those groups most impacted by this mass incarnation include African Americans and other people of color. The film then provides a history lesson of the United States following the end of the Civil War when America struggled with how to replace a free workforce that slaves had provided. Enter the 13th Amendment (Amendment XIII) to the United States Constitution which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime.
The text of the 13th Amendment states that “Neither 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.”
Naturally, most people focused on the fact that this amendment, in essence, abolished slavery. However, much like the stand-your-ground law that was made famous in the Trayvon Martin case, in many aspects, this amendment also was overlooked. Particularly the section of the amendment that in essence says that an individual is not considered an involuntary servant (slave), unless as punishment for a crime and convicted.
Through the use of historical footage as well as interviews with lawmakers and social justice change agents such as Angela Davis and Michelle Alexander (author of “The New Jim Crow”), the film explains how the southern strategy sought to convict newly freed African Americans of Jim Crow-related crimes in order to replenish the free labor that was lost with the abolishment of slavery. The film depicts how conscious efforts were made to portray African Americans, particularly African American males, as criminals in order to maintain this strategy. The documentary highlighted this negative stereotyping campaign by detailing the infamous “Birth of a Nation,” a film that to this day is widely considered by many to be significant work in cinematic history, despite the portrayal of African Americans as lazy, violent criminals.
The film shows how today’s prisons are run by corporations that make millions of dollars through the use of prison labor. Through the use of mass incarceration and unfair sentencing, African Americans and other minorities are still being used for their labor.
Through the use of archival footage, the documentary highlights the role that politicians played in maintaining this industrial prison complex through the war on crime campaigns as well as the war on drugs campaign, which was, in essence, a war on African Americans. The film concludes by juxtaposing footage of the 2016 presidential race and historical footage from the civil rights movement to illustrate how history may indeed repeat itself. This film is a must watch for anyone interested in social justice and human rights. I highly recommend this film.
This documentary is available on Netflix.
Daniel McCloud, Ph.D., Higher Education Administration