The 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution abolished slavery in the year 1865. Part of the amendment has become quite infamous in my opinion. The documentary dives deep into the clause that states “Either 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”. The amendment does not protect convicts from enslavement or involuntary service. This documentary believes that this exclusion is a method used to continually dominate people of color. Ava Duvernay, the director, uses a series of interviews and historical footage to support her beliefs of oppression.
The prison population during the Nixon administration increased tremendously after he called for law and order. A statistic that is heard throughout classrooms is that the United States has 5% of the world’s total population, however it contains 25% of the world’s total number of prisoners. The ‘Law and Order’ policy was said to allow law enforcement to incarcerate black Americans at unprecedented rates. John Ehrlichman, President Nixon’s Domestic Affairs Assistant, says that the administration knew they were lying. The documentary goes on to show segregation, drug offenses, and Jim Crow laws which were all forms of oppression over African-Americans in the United States. A very similar issue has risen again in the form of America’s ‘Prison Industrial Complex’. Ava Duvernay wraps the documentary up by reasoning that the criminal justice system has to be rebuilt drastically because the problems cannot be solved with such minor changes.
Following the abolishment of slavery, the slaves formally responsible for the productivity of the economy in the south were given freedom. In a bid to rebuild, African-Americans were imprisoned for minor crimes and forced to take part in forced labor in order to rebuild the economy. It is shocking and ironic that ‘The Land of the Free’ has the highest rates of incarceration worldwide. Incarceration is shown to have become part of the American culture when the prison population for 1970, which was 357,292 is compared to the population in 2014 which was 2,306,200. The theme of racial injustice is seen in that men of African-American descent have a much higher chance of being imprisoned in their lifetime. While one in seventeen males who are white is likely to be imprisoned, the ratio for African-American men are one in every three.
The film explores the hand various presidents had on criminalization, starting with President Nixon’s strategy for the South where he criminalized blacks and accommodated in the republican fold the poor whites. As Lee Atwater, one of the interviewees says, “you’re talking about cutting taxes and all of these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and the by-product of them is Blacks get hurt worse than whites”. The war on drugs by Reagan also overrepresented African-Americans in criminal news. It can be argued that Reagan and Nixon were responsible for criminalizing black Americans who suffered from addiction instead of providing resources to rehabilitate or treat them. The expansion of prisons under Bill Clinton in 1994 is another technology that was used to make communities suffer. The ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) allowed police officers to stop people they thought were immigrants through SB 1070. This kept prisons full of immigrant detainees.
The 13th documentary starts by informing the viewer of the events that occurred as the 20th century started. One of these events is ‘The Birth of a Nation' of 1915. ‘The Birth of a Nation’ is a film that depicts African Americans in a bad light. It shows them as being criminals before they are depicted as humans. The way of portrayal of this created a new perception of racial issues in the years that would follow. The film’s focus was on criminalizing blacks. It linked the word ‘criminal’ to African-Americans and installed fear among the members of the public. The 13th documentary is an important film that informs Americans of the systems that have been put in place to cause racial injustice and discrimination in the criminal justice system of the United States.
Politicians and policies and their effects on the rates of incarceration for African-Americans. Nixon is shown as the President who set the tone for the high rates of African-Americans incarceration during his term. Nixon’s policies were eventually succeeded by Reagan’s ‘War on Drugs’ which has been responsible for the creation of fear among African-American citizens. This is because it is almost like the ‘War on Drug’ was declared on them and that there is a need for them to get locked up. In this way, the 13th Amendment is abused. The film shows how a loophole exists in the 13th Amendment where it is justifiable for convicts to be subjected to forced labor has resulted in an association of the word ‘criminal’ with African-Americans. This has made it possible to mirror oppression in the form of the mass incarceration.