Did you know that the U.S. Constitution still allows African-Americans to be legally enslaved?
That’s one of the many reasons I found “13th,” director Ava DuVernay’s new and explosive Netflix documentary, so enlightening and shocking. Nominated for an Academy Aaward, it is perfect viewing for Black History Month.
Following her civil rights drama, “Selma,” DuVernay’s film dissects the prison-industrial complex and shows how this profit-from-prison system results directly from a little-known clause in the 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865. The amendment states:
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“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.” (Emphasis added)
Through a series of brilliantly juxtaposed interviews, bold graphics and hip-hop lyrics, the film demonstrates how the 14 words highlighted above led to a chain of events that gave former slave owners legal justification to retain the tremendously profitable free labor slaves provided the antebellum South. The events in question:
▪ Saw former African chattel convicted of “crimes” such as loitering and vagrancy.
▪ Led to their imprisonment and return to chain-gang servitude.
▪ Expanded such practice through modern crime bills that now serve a highly privatized prison-industrial system that massively re-criminalizes and disproportionately incarcerates black and brown-skinned Americans.
▪ Reactivated the exception clause of the 13th Amendment to provide free labor for Walmart, Victoria’s Secret and many other firms.
The documentary also traces the alarming expansion of the U.S. prison population. There were about 200,000 inmates in U.S. prisons 45 years ago but today there are more than 2 million. The U.S. has just 5 percent of the world’s population but about 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. One in three behind bars is black.
The documentary connects the general criminalization of African-Americans with political strategies that disenfranchise people of color. The connection highlights President Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, militarization of police forces and voter-suppression.
In Kentucky, those strategies rob 22 percent of African-Americans of the right to vote. That’s because Kentucky law deprives convicted felons of voting rights, even after they’ve paid their debts to society.
All of this serves the purposes of right-wing racists who admit, in the words of conservative ideologue Paul Weyrich, that they don’t want everyone to vote. High voter turnout, Weyrich argued, works against the GOP’s chances of winning. So, in addition to disenfranchising former felons, Republicans implement voter I.D. laws, under-supply voting machines to African-American communities, and otherwise make it difficult for people of color to vote.
The documentary also identifies the crime bill, passed under President Bill Clinton, as responsible for the explosion of prison populations.
Most chillingly, it fingers the rhetoric of President Donald Trump repeatedly referencing “the good old days” when protestors against the measures criticized in the film would be “punched in the face,” and “carried out on stretchers.”
I highly recommend this documentary to counter such uninformed nostalgia for our country’s segregated past.
Reach Mike Rivage-Seul, a retired Berea College professor, at Mike_Rivage-Seul @berea.edu.