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.
–Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution

Ava DuVernay makes documentaries, though her most celebrated film is Selma, a dramatisation of the story of the historic 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery and their place in the struggle for black voting rights. Last night I watched her most recent film, a Netflix documentary about the American prison system that goes under the title, 13th.

The film takes its title from the 13th amendment, which outlawed slavery but left a significant loophole which continues to permit involuntary servitude when used as punishment for crime. In meticulous detail, DuVernay shows how this loophole was exploited in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery at the end of the Civil War and continues to be abused to this day.

In Selma, Stephan James portrayed John Lewis, the SNCC activist whose skull was fractured by police who attacked the marchers on the Edmund Pettus bridge on ‘Bloody Sunday’, 7 March 1965.

That’s the same John Lewis whose reputation was besmirched in a tweet by Donald Trump the other day, and it’s the same Donald Trump to whom DuVernay devotes a powerful sequence in 13th.

In 13th, DuVernay draws attention to Trump’s involvement in the case of the Central Park Five in 1989, when he took out a full-page ad in the New York Daily News calling for the return of the death penalty for four innocent black teenagers who had been wrongfully convicted of rape. DuVernay then juxtaposes racist sneers and provocations uttered by Trump at his 2016 campaign rallies with footage of violence inflicted on civil rights campaigners in the 1960s.

In response to a black heckler at one 2016 rally, he yells: ‘In the good old days this doesn’t happen because they used to treat them very, very rough. And when they protested once, you know, they would not do it again so easily,’ In 13th, his words ring out over a montage of scenes from civil rights footage of black protestors being punched and pushed by racist mobs. ‘I’d like to punch him in the face I’ll tell you,’ Trump yells as a black protestor is manhandled from the premises.

‘These scenes make 13th one of the most effective horror movies in years,’ wrote Jordan Hoffman in his Guardian review of DuVernay’s film. Summarising the argument put forward by DuVernay’s film, he wrote:

‘Prisons are the new plantations!’ may seem like sloganeering from a far-left protestor, but DuVernay’s effective film draws a strong, straight line from the abolition of slavery to today’s mass incarceration epidemic, explaining its root cause: money. Cheap prison labour is knotted up in the US economy in many unexpected ways, and the system is designed to get black men into jails early and often.

When the 13th amendment was ratified in 1865, its drafters left a large, exploitable exception to the abolition of slavery on American soil: one which converted slavery from a legal business model to an equally legal method of punishment for criminals.

13th begins with an astonishing statistic: the United States is home to 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners. One out of four of the world’s prisoners are behind bars, locked up, shackled in the home of the free. That’s the highest rate of incarceration in the world: 2.3 million souls, 37% of whom are non-Hispanic black males and another 22% Hispanic males. One in three African-American males will serve prison time at one point in their lives.

Angela Davis,
Angela Davis, Professor Emerita, Santa Cruz University in 13th

‘Slavery was an economic system, and the demise of slavery at the end of the Civil War left the southern economy in tatters,’ says Jelani Cobb, Professor of African-American Studies at Connecticut University, at the outset of the film. He continues:

That’s four million people who were formerly property, an integral part of the southern economic system, who were now free. So what do you do with these people? How do you rebuild your economy?

From this point, and these questions, DuVernay begins a journey through a century and a half of American history, drawing upon the knowledge and insights of scholars and activists, slowly building the case that today’s prison system is merely a new iteration of the plantation system under slavery. At points throughout the film, a single word in large white letters is flashed on the dark screen: CRIMINAL.

Southern slaves, emancipated in 1865
Southern slaves, emancipated in 1865

For this was the answer to the southern question, as posed by Jelani Cobb: to create a myth of black criminality and turn African-Americans into criminals. In the first iteration of the Southern strategy, hundreds of newly emancipated slaves were re-enlisted into servitude courtesy of trumped-up charges. Further iterations evolved, each of them examined by DuVernay’s witnesses: lynching and Jim Crow laws, Nixon’s law and order campaign, Reagan’s War on Drugs, Bill Clinton’s Three Strikes and mandatory sentencing laws and the current cash-for-prisoners model that generates millions for private bail and prison companies.

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindness, is one of those witnesses. She argues that today’s mass incarceration is the continuation in disguised form of a policy continuum that began with slavery before evolving into Jim the Crow laws which supplied chain gang labour. As one of ‘the three major racialized systems of control adopted in the United States to date,’ it ensures ‘the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.’ Under the old Jim Crow, state laws instituted different rules for blacks and whites, segregating them under the doctrine of separate but equal. Now, with the United States having 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, a disproportionate number of whom are black, mass incarceration has become ‘metaphorically, the new Jim Crow.’

And the numbers keep on growing. Every so often in 13th, an onscreen graphic keeps tally of the number of prisoners in the system as the years pass. Starting in the 1940’s, the curve of the prisoner count graph begins rising slowly, before transforming into a meteoric rise began during the Civil Rights movement that has continued into the 21st century. Profit has been the major by-product of this cycle, intentionally so: the film reveals how an organisation funded by some America’s biggest corporations called ALEC has promoted legislative initiatives which have resulted in more blacks going to prison. (One such initiative was Florida’s ‘stand your ground’ law that helped acquit George Zimmerman after he shot and killed Trayvon Martin in 2012.) The same companies benefit from having their products assembled by the unpaid, forced labour of predominantly black prisoners.

13th covers a lot of ground with commendable clarity as it works its meticulous way to the present: one of privatised prisons and non-custodial sentencing arrangements, of increasingly militarised police forces, of an endless list of African-Americans being shot by police, and of Black Lives Matter. DuVernay shows how deeply ingrained are the prejudices which underpin these systems, not letting either Republicans or Democrats off the hook – nor, indeed the many black politicians or community leaders who have bought into the ‘law and order’ that sustain them.

Ava DuVernay’s brilliantly analytical and morally passionate film traces the present-day mass incarceration of black Americans to its historical origins in the Thirteenth Amendment which supposedly abolished slavery, but instead led to its perpetuation in different forms.

Michelle Alexander in 13th
Michelle Alexander in 13th

In a recent interview, Michelle Alexander, the civil rights law scholar who is one of the main contributors to 13th, said this:

I don’t view mass incarceration as just a problem of politics or policy, I view it as a profound moral and spiritual crisis as well. I think that racial justice in this country will remain a distant dream as long as we think that it can be achieved simply through rational policy discussions. If we take a purely technocratic approach to these issues and strip them of their moral and spiritual dimensions, I think we’ll just keep tinkering and tinkering and fail to realize that all of these issues really have more to do with who we are individually and collectively, and what we believe we owe one another, and how we ought to treat one another as human beings. These are philosophical questions, moral questions, theological questions, as much as they are questions about the costs and benefits of using one system of punishment or policing practice over another.

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