Documentary Puts New Perspective on 13th Amendment


“The 13th”, a documentary by Ava DuVernay, follows the path of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

Through her documentary, DuVernay alludes to a notion that the U.S. uses that excerpt as grounds for keeping minorities enslaved.

She attempts to prove this point by showing how the amount of prisoners in the U.S has risen while politicians have used certain language like “law and order” and keeping “criminals off the street” as a way to justify the high prisoner rate.

DuVernay does an exceptional job of pointing out politicians on both sides of the aisle as well. Early in the film the documentary focused largely on Nixon platform of law and order and Reagans’ war on drugs, which led to offenders getting large mandatory sentences on their first offense and gave extremely harsher penalties to those tied to crack compared to the more expensive cocaine.

The film argues that the roots of these policies come from older efforts of the media to label blacks as “savages” and “criminals” in film and newspapers.

DuVernay believes that Democrats began to use similar tactics in order to capture votes. Bill Clinton signified the switch when he adopted a crime bill in 1994, which offered states incentives if they abolished parole and added more cops on the streets. The bill also added the three-strike rule for felonies.

The documentary features many historians and intellectuals who discuss the impact of legislation on the increase of prisoners in the U.S.

A great example of the job The 13th does of illustrating DuVernay’s point is by putting a spotlight on American Legislative Exchange Council, which is a collection of politicians and companies who work together for each others interest. As the documentary presents evidence where legislation was passed on behalf of ALEC to benefit the prison system, historians discuss the impact. But along with the historians, an ALEC representative speaks on how crazy the theory is that politicians would promote mass incarceration for corporations.

This interaction shows how these ideas have been brushed aside for years in the U.S. as unrealistic, but DuVernay and her crew do a fantastic job of showing that the government has had a major part in rising incarceration rates. To reverse this trend Americans must acknowledge its existence, and watching this film is an important first step.

The documentary is now available on Netflix.

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