“13th” exposes America’s modern slavery

Photo courtesy of Netflix
Photo courtesy of Netflix

Photo courtesy of Netflix

By Jessie Rowan | gargoyle@flagler.edu

My mouth was wide open, eyes pinned to the screen as it dissolved to black, tears drying on my cheeks as I wiped away my mascara. I was still picking at my fingernails and my heart was beating out of my chest with frustration. I had just finished watching Ava Duvernay’s documentary, “13TH”.

The 2016 documentary titled “13TH” is not a leisurely, popcorn-eating film. It is one that will keep you on the edge of your seat as it challenges American motives regarding race, integrity, and the major issue of mass incarceration.

Filmmaker and activist Duvernay, also well-known for directing the film “Selma,” became the first black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe Award, according to IMDb.

The overall concept of the documentary revolves around the idea of the 13th Amendment which states, “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.”

According to law, slavery was formally abolished in the United States after the 13th Amendment was passed by the Congress and ratified in 1865. But was it actually abolished? The basis for this speculation is supported throughout the film.

Slavery is still alive and well within the United States, yet in a new altered form. Mass incarceration is masked by the thought that individuals deserve to be behind bars for committing a crime. While crime deserves punishment, there is an obvious issue with institutionalized racism.

The film shows crack as a cheap, predominately inner-city drug while cocaine is much more expensive and largely appears in wealthier areas. According to the law, possessing one ounce of crack earns the same sentence as ten ounces of cocaine. This is where the inequality is created. This is an institutionalized form of racism because inner city areas that are predominately black are targeted for virtually the same drug.

How can a country that professes to be “the land of the free and the home of the brave” harbor such biased racial imprisonment? This question circled through my brain while watching the documentary.

Another blood-pumping topic discussed was the idea of racism and how it’s greatly imbedded within institutions. Many people don’t even realize it. Prison labor is free labor. Isn’t forced labor considered a form of slavery? In other words, institutions profit off punishment. According to the film, corporations that have profited from prison labor include Victoria’s Secret, JCPenney and Walmart.

The film argues a variety of proposals—from Jim Crow laws to President Richard Nixon’s “war on drugs” and President Bill Clinton’s “three-strikes-you’re-out” legislation— all have served to send increasingly large numbers of black individuals to prison.

The film didn’t forget to take a stab at the modern political figures—both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. This part solidified present day racism and how it is still very prominent within American society. The documentary bashes Bill and Hillary Clinton for supporting the 1990s crime bill which led to a spike in prison population, while footage of angry whites becoming violent with black protesters at a Trump rally were shown.

So, what is the next covert form of slavery? Or will there actually be an end in sight once and for all? That’s the frustrating question viewers are left with at the end of the film.

It may have been the lyrical rap mixes dubbed throughout the segments of the documentary or the startling statistics projected on the screen, but most likely what added to the overwhelming impact was the setting where I previewed the film—sitting in the St. Pauls AME Church in Lincolnville, a former freed-slave community.

Like most college students, walking into the church, I migrated toward the back. What I found very revealing about our society today were the number of black viewers sitting in the back, while a flock of white individuals predominately sat in the front.

The film highlighted the negatives in U.S. racial history, yet unfortunately, did not provide policy solutions.

During an interview with Fortune Entertainment, Duvernay spoke about the overall reason behind the film.

The goal was to show the larger context,” she said. “So that we’re not living in this fog of ignorance anymore.”

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