“13th” traces US racism to use of prison slave labor

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Name: 13th
Director, writer:  Ava DuVernay
Released:  2016/9
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play
Length 100
Rating PG-13
Companies: Netflix Red Envelope
Link: Fortune

13th”, directed by Ava DuVernay for Netflix studios, is a powerful documentary that traces racism (particularly what we saw in Trump’s campaign this year) and racial profiling all the way back to the logical sequels of slavery.

The 13tn Amendment to the Constitution prohibits slavery except for convicted criminals.  (I could wonder immediately about involuntary conscription into the Armed Forces.)  So “Negros” were often convicted of small crimes so they could be “re-slaved” by prison labor.  The film traces the use of prison labor all the way into recent history with the privatization of prisons for profit with many of the laws drafted by a conservative pressure group, ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), such as SB1070 (NPR story )

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The use of prison labor corresponds with many trends in race and criminal law since Reconstruction, leading to segregation and the whole “Jim Crow Law” legal establishment in the South. Then in the 1970, Richard Nixon developed a code of criminalization associating drug abuse and pot with war protesters and with blacks.  (The Army, however, gradually became a place where African Americans could advance, as it already was in 1968, when I was drafted.  That had been helped by Truman’s desegregation of the military in 1948.) I recall a very draconian anti-drug law signed by Rockefeller for New York State in 1973.  The Reagan years continued the anti-drug campaign with Nancy’s “Just Say No” campaign, and with particularly the explosion of crack.

This documentary maintains that the 1915 epic “The Birth of the Nation” helped foment the KKK,. The film covers the practice of lynching, with graphic autobiographical accounts and pictures (which the late Gode Davis has covered in his unfinished film “American Lynching”, of which I saw parts of, about 30 minutes, in his home in 2003).  The film mentions autobiographies of black people affected by segregation, and the gradual exposure of the evils of segregation with the media of the day – big magazines (as in “Loving”, yesterday), and television, which televised the Civil Rights movement in the south – Selma, and the death of Emmett Till.

The film does present several of the most corrosive and provocative rants by Donald Trump early in his 2016 campaign. (In fact, his pet saying has been rephrased as “Make America White Again.”) The film mentions Trump’s demand of the the death penalty (no longer possible) for “The Central Park Five” even though those men (from a late 80s case) were later exonerated by DNA evidence (and had been coerced to confess) – the wrongful conviction issue that has become a career for filmmaker Andrew Jenks.

The film looks at relative incarceration rates by race and notes that in many states, felons cannot vote again.  (An earlier film, May 10, covered te way sex offenders are kept away from society forever by the criminal justice system.)

At the end, the film summarizes several of the police shooting cases that led to the Black Lives Matter movement, especially Ferguson, and Fernando Castille in Minnesota.  Darrien Hunt in Utah would have been a good one to cover (Reid Ewing tweeted a lot about the incident).

(Posted: Sunday, November 13, 2016 at 9:45 PM EST)

One thought on ““13th” traces US racism to use of prison slave labor”

  1. Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA will show the film at 11:30 AM Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017 in an extended service. I got the email and confess I had forgotten I had watched and reviewed the film, and watched it again on Netflix. The style of the film seems “propaganda-like” aimed at group justice, so it tends not to stick in memory well. This time I noted the discussions of the economy of the South after the Civil War, and it seems relevant today with the debate over removing Confederate statues. I noted Angela Davis. I also noticed the graphic description of solitary confinement, and the use of privately run prisons, and the hiring out of their labor for infrastructure projects. A white male has a 1 in 17 chance of seeing a jail cell in a lifetime; a black, 1 in 3. And there is this item on blacks facing violence.https://mic.com/articles/185660/black-teen-boys-19-times-more-likely-to-be-killed-by-homicide-than-white-boys-in-us-unicef-reports#.Rucp6emvY

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