Did you know that the U.S. Constitution still allows African Americans to be legally enslaved?
That’s one of the many reasons I found 13,th, Ava DuVernay’s new and explosive Netflix documentary, so enlightening and shocking.
Following up on her civil rights drama, Selma, DuVernay’s film dissects the prison-industrial complex and shows how this profit-from-prison system results directly from a little-known clause in the 13th Amendment of the Constitution ratified in 1865. The amendment states:
“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.” (Emphasis added)
Through a series of brilliantly juxtaposed interviews, bold graphics and hip-hop lyrics, the film demonstrates how the 14 words highlighted above led to a chain of events that provided former slave owners with the legal justification they required to retain the tremendously profitable free labor slaves provided the ante bellum South. The events in question:
- Saw former African chattel convicted of “crimes” such a loitering and vagrancy.
- Led to their imprisonment and return to chain-gang servitude.
- Expanded such practice through the passage of modern crime bills that now serve a highly privatized prison-industrial system that massively re-criminalizes and disproportionately incarcerates black and brown-skinned Americans.
- Reactivated the exception clause of the 13th Amendment to provide free labor for Walmart, Victoria’s Secret, and many other firms.
However, 13th goes much further than exposing past and present forms of legal slavery. It also traces the shocking expansion of the U.S. prison population itself. Forty-five years ago, there were about 200,000 inmates in U.S. prisons. Today inmates number more than 2 million. Although the U.S. has just 5% of the world’s population, it has about 25% of the world’s prisoners. One in three behind bars is black.
Going even further, 13th connects the general criminalization of African Americans with political strategies that disenfranchise people of color. The connection highlights Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the militarization of police forces, and voter-suppression measures in general.
In Kentucky those strategies end up robbing 22% of African Americans of their right to vote. That’s because law in this state insists on depriving convicted felons of voting rights even after they have paid their “debts to society.”
All of this serves the purposes of right wing racists who admit in the words of conservative ideologue, Paul Weyrich, that they don’t want everyone to vote. High voter turnout, Weyrich has argued, works against the G.O.P.’s chances of winning. So besides disenfranchising former felons, Republicans implement voter I.D. laws, under-supply voting machines to African American communities, and otherwise make it difficult for people of color to vote.
However, Republicans are not the only ones indicted in 13th. The documentary also identifies Bill and Hillary Clinton’s 1990s Crime Bill as responsible for the explosion of prison populations.
Most chillingly, though, 13th fingers the rhetoric of Donald Trump repeatedly presented as referencing “the good old days” when protestors against the measures criticized in the film would be “punched in the face,” and “carried out on stretchers.”
I highly recommend 13th to counter such uninformed nostalgia for the segregated past. I also hope DuVernay’s work will be duly recognized this year at the Academy Awards. (She’s on the short list for best-documentary nomination.)