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.

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