The words of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution were supposed to guarantee that slavery and involuntary servitude effectively were outlawed with the exception of punishment for a crime where the “party shall have been convicted.” That’s the loophole. And as detailed in 13th, director Ava DuVernay’s stunning and enlightening new Netflix documentary, the system of injustice in America has not changed all that much since the earliest days of slavery. The movie became the first documentary ever to serve as opening-night film of the New York Film Festival just a week ago, and I would say it should not be ignored at Oscar time in a year of increasingly fine documentaries.
As I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), the statistics DuVernay has put on the screen say it all: African-Americans make up 6.5% of the U.S. population but a whopping 40% of the prison population — in a country with the highest level of incarceration in the world, up more than tenfold since 1970 and existing mostly to put away black and Latino men. As her film points out, the chances for a white male to serve time is 1 in 17; for a black male, it’s 1 in 3.
Shameful. But what’s really eye opening in 13th is that it seems to come down to money. That was the driving force in the beginning, when slavery effectively was ended but the South had to figure out a way to balance the economics when suddenly they were short about 4 million slaves. Using that loophole in the 13th Amendment, Southerners started putting blacks in prisons for petty reasons and continued to put them into the workforce in that way without calling them “slaves.” Today the practice exists in many ways, making our prisons overcrowded and filled with minorities, the most vulnerable and underprivileged among us, who shouldn’t be there. Private prisons, which have become a hot-button political issue, exist to make money off of incarceration, as do other factors in a system that really is rigged against poorer elements of our society.
DuVernay and her co-writer and longtime editor Spencer Averick have assembled a remarkable prosecution of that system, detailing its beginnings with the end of slavery, right thru the Jim Crow South, the Civil Rights movement and up to today’s presidential election and the seething white anger and racism on view at Donald Trump rallies. D.W. Griffith’s landmark 1915 silent, The Birth of a Nation, again is trotted out as an example of how the Ku Klux Klan rose to levels of power they never should have been able to attain. A stunning parade of experts, historians, politicians and others such as Angela Davis, Sen. Corey Booker, Henry Louis Gates Jr, Michelle Alexander and the likes of Newt Gingrich are weaved in and out of the film to tell various aspects of the sorry state of incarceration today. I thought political pundit Van Jones was particularly insightful in his comments. Although there are a lot of talking heads in this movie, the way they are integrated into the vintage and contemporary footage DuVernay and Averick have put together is simply masterful. This is storytelling on a major scale, and a documentary that has tremendous value and importance.
Without getting overly political, DuVernay lays out the case in simple terms that “black lives matter.” As seen in this documentary, it is not so much a movement but an inherent human obligation to not only realize that but to do something about it. The director of Selma as well as the heartbreaking Sundance-winning indie Middle of Nowhere — which details the relationship of an African-American woman and her husband who is sentenced to eight years in prison — has made another remarkable movie to which attention must be paid. If it makes you angry, it should. It begins streaming today on Netflix and also is playing in select theaters. Find it any way you can.
Do you plan to see 13th? Let us know what you think.