Friday, February 24, 2017

13th: Exposing Modern-Day Slavery Behind Bars

13th: Exposing Modern-Day Slavery Behind Bars

By: Lexi Frazier


The Netflix original documentary “13th” explores the deplorable criminalization of African Americans in the U. S., which was all made possible by a loophole in the 13th Amendment that essentially transformed slaves into criminals. This film, an Oscar nominee for Best Documentary, provides staggering insight into how the cancer of racism in America so deeply rooted in our history is still far from being cured. “13th” takes on an intellectual, predominantly African American perspective and targets an educated, racially diverse audience to explain issues that are at the forefront of American society today, including the Black Lives Matter movement and, particularly, the issue of mass incarceration in America.

"13th" Documentary Official Trailer

Turn on the news channel for long enough and the social context that prompted the creation of this documentary becomes evident. In recent years the issue of black rights in America has become all too prevalent. Today, we are bombarded with images of protests (and riots) attributable to Black Lives Matter, an activist movement that campaigns against racial profiling, police brutality, and perceived racial inequality in the U. S. criminal justice system. This film addresses these injustices directly, providing valuable reasoning as to why they exist and why such a movement is necessary.

To be completely honest, this is part of why I felt so enlightened by this film. Prior to watching, I was embarrassingly ignorant, and I failed to understand the purpose of the Black Lives Matter movement. From my perspective, it seemed like African Americans were just angry and rioting about racial injustice for no real reason. I mean, it seemed to me like African Americans share all the same rights as any other U. S. citizen. So what’s the problem? Here’s the problem: while the U.S. contains only 5% of the world’s population, this “land of the free” holds 25% of the world’s prisoners. Equally appalling, while black men make up only 6.5% of the U.S. population, they account for 40.2% of America’s prison population, and 1 in 3 black men will go to prison during their lifetime. Such shocking statistics are the symptoms of much greater problems in America: the ridiculously overblown size of our prison system and the criminalization of African Americans that disproportionally fill these prisons. While the Black Lives Matter movement was sparked by alarming cases of police brutality in which unarmed, innocent black people, such as Trayvon Martin, were shot and killed, the movement is clearly about much more than these specific instances. Obviously, given that the current social climate that is rife with racial tensions, this provides the perfect context for this documentary.

“13th” argues that one of the most momentous, historic victories for African Americans, the passage of the 13th Amendment, was nothing more than a political sham. The film makes the case that although the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States, it contained a loophole which permitted involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime. This loophole has been exploited ever since the aftermath of the civil war to target and imprison the very same people the 13th Amendment professed to be freeing. With the addition of a single clause, the ringing bells of freedom become stifled and America as the home of the free becomes just a myth for many.

The KKK tortures a "black" man in the 1915 film "Birth of A Nation" 
“13th” traces a disgraceful legacy of racism and the evolution of oppressive systems targeting blacks in America, from slavery to Jim Crowe segregation laws to the “War on Crime” and the “War on Drugs.”  It explains that immediately following the civil war and the emancipation of all slaves, the economy of the South was in shambles as all their wealth in the form of slave property vanished and their agriculture-based economy no longer had wage-free labor to work Southern plantations. However, the 13th amendment loophole was used from the very beginning to imprison many of the freed slaves for minor offenses, thus rebuilding the economy of the South on the backs of forced black laborers under a new name: no longer slaves, but criminals. “13th”demonstrates how early movies such as the 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation” criminalized blacks by portraying them as amoral rapists and animals, not because this was true but because it was necessary for society to see them as criminals so they could be exploited for free prisoner labor to repair the economy. Thus, from the beginning, people have profited from the criminalization and punishment of blacks. Fast-forward to the present and corporations in the partially privatized prison industry are profiting from black peoples’ punishment in a similar way. The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) owns private prisons and detention centers, and they have a financial interest in locking up as many people as possible. Consequently, the CCA would require that state prisons keep their facilities full. Also, the prison industry sustains companies that provide various services for inmates such as food and medical aid. Finally, prisoners are made to do various unpaid labor, such as working to supply materials for many industries throughout the U.S., even big retailers such as Victoria’s Secret and J.C. Penney.

“13th” also highlights how the “War on Crime” and “War on Drugs” political campaigns that existed during the Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton administrations were often thinly veiled mechanisms for criminalizing and targeting black communities. These initiatives fed on people’s fears (primarily their media-propagated fear of black criminals) and led to dramatic rise in incarceration rates, exemplified by the increase of the prison population from 759,100 in 1985 to 2,306,200 in 2014. On top of this, this era also introduced legislation such as mandatory sentencing and the three strikes rule that prevented innocent people from seeking fair trials and put more people in prison for longer, often without parole. This film shows how violent, confined, and inhumane conditions in prisons can get, dehumanizing prisoners, many of whom are black. This forces us to ask ourselves if society treats black lives like they matter, and a strong case could be made that, overall, it does not.

In terms of persuasive appeals, the film’s argument strongly favors logos, citing many images, videos, statistics, and historical/current events that provide factual information about the subject matter, whether it be a picture of the 13th amendment, iPhone videos of police unjustly attacking black people, or a graph demonstrating the drastic rise in the American prison population. These logos appeals bolster and support the film’s central argument and contribute to a very intellectually stimulating conversation. The argument appeals to ethos by choosing to interview people who are well-educated intellectuals, people who are mostly black and understand what it’s like to be black in America, and ex-convicts who have lived through the torture that is the U.S. prison system. Lastly, the film appeals to pathos in several ways. One such appeal is with sad and sentimental music throughout. Also, the film includes rap music with lyrics describing racial inequality for blacks in the justice system, which resonates with people’s emotions as well. Even the movie poster, which represents the stripes of the American flag as synonymous with the stripes on suits worn by prisoners makes a jolting, emotionally-charged inquiry about whether America truly does embody its core value of freedom. Additionally, disturbing footage of injustices against blacks, such as them being hung by KKK members, beaten in prisons, attacked by police, etc., is meant to tug at our heartstrings and appeal to our sympathy and sense of justice. These are just some highlights, some bits and pieces of the argument the film makes that really don’t do it justice. So please, I beg of you, just watch it.

Since “13th” is a Netflix original documentary, its target audience includes anyone with access to a Netflix account, which is a huge and diverse audience, indeed. However, I would contend that this film appeals more to educated people who have sufficient knowledge of American history, an interest in current events, and concern for big issues facing today’s society. This is simply due to the film’s many historical and current event references and its central focus on a massive, complex societal problem. I believe this film targets blacks and whites, and really people of any race desirous of understanding the racial relations, tensions, and problems that exist today. I think black people would benefit from an understanding of why they are disadvantaged and even targeted in American society and that this disadvantage is due to historically rooted racial issues within our institutions, not because their lives don’t matter. I believe blacks would gain an appreciation for their brave ancestors such as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Angela Davis who fought for the rights they have today. Black people can also look at their present situation in the context of their history in America realize that their present plight is nothing new: they fought for justice and equality before and they can do it again. Like I mentioned before, as a white person viewing the documentary I felt enlightened about some of the troubling realities black Americans face. I was made aware of the ways in which society not only wronged them in the past, but also continues to wrong them today, particularly through the prejudiced mass incarceration of many people in black communities. In summation, “13th” is accessible to a huge audience of Netflix viewers, but it probably appeals more to a subset of those viewers who are well educated and well informed about societal issues.

Interview with "13th" director Ava DuVernay
“13th” was directed by Ava DuVernay, a notably remarkable woman in the film industry. She also received a Golden Globe Award for directing the movie “Selma” in 2014, which also dealt with issues of race concerning Martin Luther King’s story and the civil rights era. She is a black woman, and her unique perspective was responsible for developing the concept of the central “13th” argument. This demonstrates her in-depth understanding of African American history in the U.S. and how it connects to present-day issues. As aforementioned, the film interviews mostly black people, which is appropriate and adds credibility, since African Americans are the subject matter of the film. The African American academic-type interviewees certainly get a lot of air-time during this film and include people such as Bryan A. Stevenson, Van Jones, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Cory Booker. This gives the film the perspective and credibility of intellectuals who are successful lawyers, social activists, authors, and historians. The film also includes the perspective of a few white people as interviewees, perhaps so as not to alienate this group completely and to add diverse perspectives. In fact, something Newt Gingrich, a white commentator, said really stuck with me: “You can’t understand what it’s like to be a black person in America unless you are one.” Another very interesting perspective featured on this film is Angela Davis, a black political activist and a scholar who is actually featured in footage from the 1960s from when she was a young woman who was a leader for the civil rights movement in America. This adds a lot of credibility and a fascinating viewpoint to the film since she was really part of making history and she really fought to advance African Americans in society. Also, being a significant figure in the civil rights movement, Angela Davis experienced firsthand how oppressed black people have been and all that they have been through.

Without the slightest hesitation, I decided to give this documentary 5 nacho chips. It is by far the most fascinating, impactful, and meaningful thing I’ve watched this year. I can tell that this true because after watching “13th” I couldn’t stop thinking about it and I couldn’t stop talking about it. Upon watching such a thought-provoking film, I felt enlightened to the racial inequality of the U.S. justice system that oppresses black people today as well as the historical causes and reasoning that account for such a despicable institution. The film ends with a sort of call to action. Bryan Stevenson remarks how people sometimes recount disgraceful events in human history such as the Holocaust or slavery in America and say to themselves: “If I was alive at the time, I would’ve never stood by idly while such atrocities were taking place.” However, we could be doing just that, standing by idly while the atrocity that is the criminalization of blacks in America is taking place. In this way, the film motivates viewers to be a force for positive change so that one day, when people look back at this day in history, rather than being appalled by our inaction, people will be inspired by our fight for justice.

Before the Flood is a 2016 documentary about climate change. The film took us across the world, visiting Canada’s oil mines, Beijing’s smog, Florida’s floods, and many other locations across the globe. This documentary provides the viewer with a lot of facts, professional opinions, and imagery on what is going on with our planet’s change in climate. The entire documentary is told by Leonardo DiCaprio which provided me with a familiar face whom I love to see on the screen. Unfortunately, because it was such a science based message, I found it really hard to receive from a Hollywood actor. While the film was very interesting and entertaining to watch, it’s big push for me as the viewer to take action against Global Warming was unsuccessful due to how they chose to present the message.

Obviously Global Warming and climate change are relevant topics right now, and this documentary was made to bring even more awareness to those issues (Before the Flood "About" page). The movie was actually released just weeks before the presidential election, THAT seems to be a message in itself. The entire documentary had a very liberal stance, knocking conservative views any chance it got (as well as no interviewed persons to talk about a counter argument), so there is another potential example of the film’s context. 

As far as audience goes, I believe this was created to reach as many people as possible. We are all inhabitants of this planet, and this film was made to educate us on what kind of effect we are having on Earth.  It was released on National Geographic channel, and what I find interesting about this is that the majority of people who are watch National Geographic probably already care about the environment, so why release it there?  If they are truly trying to make a change, then wouldn’t they want to reach the people who don’t know or care about climate change? It would make more sense to release it on a national news network like ABC or even better, Fox. In my opinion, that would have really spread the word.

The underlying purpose, or message of this documentary was that each and every decision we make directly impacts the global environment. Whether it’s our purchases at the grocery store, the lights we use in our homes, or the cars we drive, just about anything we do to this planet will have an effect on its life.  This film was made with the goal of educating everyone on the truth of climate change so we can collectively make a change. What it kept saying was that if a change wasn’t made, we are basically toast. And they reinforced this idea by referencing and interviewing all kinds of renowned scientists, politicians, and scholars. For instance, Al Gore, one of the most outgoing climate change advocators, was referenced in the movie several times. Barack Obama was even interviewed in the film, along with many scientists and scholars who all supported the notion that global warming is killing our planet. Another key figure they chose to highlight in the doc was The Pope, he even said that “we need to take action against global warming.”  What they did was get countless credible people to support their message and highlight the ideas that they wanted. This strongly appeals to the viewer’s logos and ethos because they are providing us with facts and ideas coming from individuals who are extremely credible in their fields. To get at our pathos they did a lot of guilt tripping (in my opinion). I heard a lot of stuff about how horrible we are for ruining our planet and why we’ve done such a poor job. Another jab at our pathos was fear, the documentary did a good job of making us feel scared about the future of Earth, which could make the viewer take a stand against climate change.

As far as Point of View goes, I was not pleased with the film. While the message was impactful and maybe even factual, the fact that a Hollywood actor is delivering it to me completely takes all credibility away. Even though Leo is the UN Messenger of Peace (a position he has been asked to step down from due to scandal) I didn’t like the fact that he was the middle man to reach the masses on this high level issue. This is a guy who has a massive carbon footprint, from his plentiful jet rides and luxurious cars and goods, so why is he the one preaching to me about cutting back on my impact on the environment?!?

I give this documentary 2 stars, and the only reason it had 2 is because it was entertaining and the cinematics/visuals were surreal. I take away 3 stars because a documentary like this is meant to make a change, but their delivery medium (DiCaprio- aka Hollywood hot shot, aka not a scientist/scholar) did not get the job done for me. When DiCaprio stops ruining our ozone with his fancy jet (hypocrisy), I’ll think about my impact on climate change.

Should College Athletes Be Paid?

The documentary, “Schooled: The Price of      College Sports” gives a perspective on whether or not college athletes should be paid. This documentary essentially states that the NCAA exploits student athletes who participate in college sports, but the athletes do not reap any benefits from the profits the NCAA is making. The film begins with presenting this problem. It then goes on to give a history of the NCAA and how they established their organization. One of the basic principles in which the NCAA was found upon was the fact that students coming to school to play sports would not be paid to play. Instead, they would be given a scholarship to attend school for free. In the beginning, athletes wanting to be paid was not a huge issue, but with the introduction of high profile companies sponsoring college athletics and the broadcast of the sports on national television, the problem skyrocketed. Student athletes felt violated by this system. The rest of the film focuses on interviews of highly recognizable sports figures, and anecdotes of college athletes who have suffered as a result of the NCAA. The context, audience, purpose, and point of view are all easily identified and combine together to make a highly compelling argument for the pay of student athletes.

            The context of this film is college athletes who have come out and said they have had enough of being subjugated by the NCAA. There have been multiple accounts of athletes who have said they cannot afford to buy food, they need help paying rent, or they want money to send back home to their family because they are in need of money. However, they have no power to do this because they do not have any way to make any sort of revenue due to NCAA regulations. Once these issues were brought to the public eye, many people started to question the legitimacy of the NCAA, prompting many people to write books or make moves such as “Schooled” about the on going issue.

            The audience for this documentary was primarily intended to be those who are on the fence or do not agree with the idea of paying student athletes. This is clear because the film is 100% on the side of paying student athletes. Because of its one sidedness, it is tailored strictly to help persuade those who do not fully agree with paying student athletes. The argument could also be made that they movie was made to be seen by people who have no knowledge about the issue. There are numerous facts and interviews that explain the situation thoroughly enough to where the audience could become educated enough to where they could make their own opinion about the subject.

            The purpose of this film is to gain sympathy for student athletes and show the corruption of the NCAA. This is effectively done by ethos, logos, and pathos. The credibility of this film (logos) is seen by interviewing high profile athletes and personalities such as Arian Foster, Jay Bilas, and Bob Costas. Hearing what these highly recognizable people giving their opinion about this issue will make people to listen. The facts (logos) that this documentary presents to gain sympathy for the athletes is when it discusses the account of Jonathan Franklin, a running back at UCLA. The film states the scholarship UCLA grants is approximately $28,000 a year, but it falls about $3,500 short of the “cost of attendance”. These facts show the audience that athletes are not given the money to buy meals, groceries, or other items they need for school. The emotion (pathos) for this documentary include an account by a former student athlete from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Devon Ramsay made use of a tutor provided by the athletic department, but because of one small change the tutor made to his paper, the NCAA accused him of academic fraud. After that, he was permanently ineligible from athletics. The NCAA does not allow the use of a tutor, but they are not afraid to make billions of dollars from these athletes and keep it. This anecdote is included in the movie solely to make people upset and appeal to their emotions.

            This documentary is written form the point of view of people that are strictly advocating for the pay of college athletes. The majority of the people in the film are for the issue, so any time a problem is presented with the matter, it is quickly rebutted because of the vast number of people bring many different perspectives to the table. It is also important that the story of this film is basically told by athletes. This gives a real life perspective of people that have experienced this first hand. Not to mention, as I have previously stated, it gives the film some credibility and makes the average person listen to what they have to say.

            I have always been on the fence about this issue. However, this documentary was incredibly convincing and gave numerous reasons as to why student athletes should receive compensation. Due to the film’s ability to fully persuade an avid sport’s fan like myself to one side of the issue, I am giving the documentary five stars.

The Culture High: Andrea Arias

The Culture High

The Culture High, a movie centralized on the arguments surrounding the topic of legalizing marijuana. The film highlights the misconceptions about marijuana itself and the altering effects of the media, society, and government as a whole. It does not take a side of whether or not marijuana should be legalized but instead, shows facts and research throughout the years giving us a more clear view of the problems the United States faces to this day.
    Filmmaker, Brett Harvey, is an award-winning director whose main objective is to inform his audience about the misconceptions of marijuana and the role society has on it. Harvey has stated in various interviews that using marijuana is a human right unless it hurts someone else in the process (Interview with Onya Ganja). He believes that this specific film was meant to outline the deeper problems in the United States, within the actual system. It would also be seen as more appealing to a broader audience compared to his other documentary (The Union) since they had various well-known government officials, comedians, university professors, and artists like Wiz Khalifa and Snoop Dogg. Harvey finds the topic of marijuana important to discuss and underlines the importance of being well informed since times are changing in the United States. His goal is to reach the minds of the audience and make them realize that prohibitions develop the enormous amount of problems the country faces today.
   The target audience for this particular film would have to be people who have used marijuana throughout their lives or people who find an interest on the topic of marijuana. The title for the movie, The Culture High, already gives an exact hint on what this two-hour documentary will be based on, giving it a disadvantage from the beginning since there is still a strong hatred towards the thought of legalizing marijuana. However, there are also people (like me) who feel the need to explore their horizons and watch it to be well informed on the topic of marijuana itself. Since times are changing, the need to stay educated on the topic is essential for the future generations due to the fact that this can affect us in the next couple of years. This documentary is backed up by research, historical content, and philosophical ideas which can also bring certain attention for an audience looking for a non-bias marijuana documentary.  If you are that type of person, watch a 5-minute kickstart of the documentary!

 The documentary shows various problems when it comes to the representation of marijuana in the media as it talks about the many misconceptions of the drug itself. Marijuana, blamed for causing cancer, schizophrenia, breast development, addiction, and usage of harder drugs, is actually not as bad at it is presented to be. Comedian Joe Rogan said in the documentary, “the only way marijuana can kill you is if you take 25lbs of it and you throw it out of a CIA plane and it hits you in the head”.  Marijuana does not cause any of those accusations set forth by the media, and as a matter of fact has caused 0 deaths. Alcohol, as a matter of fact, causes 50,000 deaths while cigarettes have caused 5.5 million deaths. That raises the question of why marijuana is illegal if it causes no life threats in comparison to alcohol and cigarettes. It is also important to state that this problem does not only affect the United States but Mexico as it has caused around 70,000 deaths consisting of parents, children, and families. Mexico’s government has also been blamed for not stopping the cartels from exporting drugs (60% marijuana) to the United States but does not take into consideration the statistical standpoint of the problem. The United States makes up 5% of the world's population and consumes 50% of the world's drugs. It is then safe to say when President Nixon proclaimed a “war on drugs”, he meant a war against the United States itself. This also brings up the topic of political benefits, meaning that a politician's main objective is to get as many supporters as possible, even if what has been said is untrue. The “war on drugs” would then cause the massive criminalization of marijuana users around the United States. Cenk Uygur, the host of the Young Turks, highlights the problem of discrimination in the criminal system as he states “even though blacks and whites consume the same amount of drugs, blacks are 4x more likely to be arrested than whites”.

 At the end of the documentary, it talks about the benefits the use of marijuana has on cancer patients and people who suffer from recurring seizures. This brings a sense of empathy for the people who truly need marijuana for medical reasons and reassures me that those should be the ones allowed to use it. Harvey’s presentation and argument of the topic of marijuana show a different side I have personally never seen before. The usage of professors (from Harvard, Yale, and UCLA), artists, comedians, and government officials, shows a great amount of credibility and reassurance that all that has been stated, is based on pure research and facts. This is actually the best documentary I have seen so far as it incorporates various viewpoints and at the end, lets the viewer have its own opinion of whether or not marijuana should be legalized.