The Academy award-nominated documentary by director Ava DuVernay (Selma) opens with the deeply disturbing fact that, even though the U.S. has only 5 percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. This is mass incarceration and it is deeply ingrained with race and our judicial system.
The beginning of 13th is almost a recap of Slavery by Another Name. (See my review , September 17, 2016). We see the Jim Crow laws up close and personal. Convict leasing and lynchings reached their peak at the turn of the 20th century. This vigilantism had the support of businesses who needed free convict labor to substitute for slavery which had been ostensibly outlawed by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Increasingly, as labor was needed, more behavior was criminalized. Historical photos and movie footage disturbingly show what happens when blacks use whites-only facilities, look at a white person eye-to-eye, congregate in small groups or fail to move off the sidewalk at the sight of a white person. At the same time, blacks were excluded from the judicial system as jurors and, when sentenced for violating a Jim Crow law, were given fines they could not pay, sending them back to prison to become free labor.
Convict labor took a new turn following the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s. We see the connection between the war on drugs and mandatory sentencing of drug users, the rise in prison labor, and eventually the symbiotic relationship with for-profit prisons. 13th notes the Republican Party’s appeal to Southern white conservatives, to be the party to fight the war on crime and war on drugs. After their presidential candidates lost to Republicans, Democratic politicians including Bill Clinton joined the war on drugs. Insidiously, this “war on drugs” became a war on blacks. Minority communities endured severe penalties for first offenders while young white offenders were often given probation. By the late 20th century, mass incarceration had become an industry with privatization of prisons served by corporate contractors to supply phone, clothing and food at exorbitant prices. Securus, for example, provides telephone services at exorbitant rates and Aramark provides food services that are often substandard.These same special interest groups lobby for criminalizing minor activities and lengthening sentences in order to keep the prisons to capacity. For the prisoners, one felony conviction–for a minor drug offense–virtually ensures that their prospects for stable employment, living arrangements, and even voting would be out of reach.
The film explores the role of ALEC (The American Legislative Executive Committee), backed by corporations, that has provided like- minded state and federal legislators with draft templates for legislation to support the prison-industrial complex among other issues. Only after journalists exposed ALEC’s corporate sponsors did corporations like Wal-Mart and others drop out of the organization.
The relationship between profits based on 19th century slavery and profits based on for-profit private prisons is depressingly illustrated. 13th explores the demonization of African Americans to serve political ends, contributing to fears of minorities by whites and the persistent problems of police brutality against minority communities. In the 21st century, the regularity of fatal police shootings of unarmed minorities in apparently minor confrontations has been demonstrated by videos taken by bystanders and by the increasing use of cams in police cars or worn by officers. DuVernay ends the film with a graphic mosaic of recent videos of fatal shootings of blacks by police.
DuVernay powerfully shows that the United States, in the final analysis, has to recognize its role in criminalizing not a subset of black people but black people as a whole. This has become a heinous process that, in addition to destroying untold lives, effectively transferred the guilt for slavery from the people who perpetuated it to the very people who suffered through it. The over-incarceration of adults, the movie goes on to assert, has severely damaged generations of black and minority families and their children.
This is an extraordinary film, a history lesson for us all.