At the beginning, Netflix documentary film “13th” presents an alarming piece of statistical data. While the population of US is merely 5% of the entire human population in the world, 20% of the prisoners in the world are incarcerated in American prisons. Any sensible American citizen can see that this is a terribly absurd fact considering that their nation has often been regarded as the land of freedom.
Mainly through various interviewees ranging from Angel Davis to Newt Gingrich, the director/co-writer Ava DuVernay, who previously directed “Selma” (2014), gives us a clear, persuasive argument on this serious social problem, which is in fact much more complex and stubborn than you might think. Although it was merely a small overlooked glitch in the US constitution at first, this seemingly inconsequential but fundamental fault has been exploited through a vicious systemic cycle of racism and incarceration, and it is really chilling and daunting to see that this may be continued as usual without any legal measures to stop it.
Everything was originated from one particular clause in the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which surely outlaws slavery as President Abraham Lincoln intended in 1865 but unfortunately contains one serious loophole in that clause. While the amendment makes it clear that slavery is banned in US or any place subject to its jurisdiction, it does not ban involuntary servitude as “a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”.
This loophole was quickly exploited not long after the end of the Civil War, when the infrastructure of the former Confederate States of America was completely collapsed while the free labor force via slavery was not available any more. Although thousands of emancipated slaves in the South were technically free as protected by the 13th Amendment, they were still penniless and helpless at the bottom of their society, so they became easy targets for arrest and incarceration. Once they were arrested just for minor misdemeanors like loitering or vagrancy, they were sent to prisons where they could be used as cheap labor force. Of course, this alternative form of slavery was perfectly legal according to that problematic clause in the 13th Amendment.
The documentary gives us a pointed explanation on how this social injustice caused more racism – and how these two factors further solidified the lower social status of black people via their toxic positive feedback. The more black people were labelled as criminals, the more they were disregarded and despised as second-rated citizens. This virulent trend kept being continued in the American society even while it entered the 20th century, and that was the main reason why D.W. Griffith’s controversial cinematic milestone “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) could get away with its blatant racist messages while praised by many white people including President Woodrow Wilson, who even reportedly said that the movie was “like writing history with lightning”. As a matter of fact, the enormous popularity of this very inconvenient masterpiece eventually led to the second rise of Ku Klux Klan, a horrible example of life imitating art.
Around the late 20th century, the situation finally started to look better for black people and other minority people in the American society. Martin Luther King Jr. and many other civil rights activists won their long, difficult battle against racism as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were passed in the US congress during the 1960s, and it looked like the American society seemed to be ready for a new beginning while leaving behind the era of Jim Crow laws.
However, the system struck back harder as politicians boasted their law and order policies for their political gains. President Richard Nixon successfully used that tactic for being elected twice, and so did President Ronald Reagan. As they declared the war on crime and drug in public, many poor black people were arrested and sent to prison just because of drug possession, while white people were usually punished lightly in contrast. As a result, the criminal prejudice on black people was kept being amplified by the media and the government, and that was exemplified well by the maddening case of the Central Park Five, one of the most shameful historical cases of racism and prejudice.
While the Republican gets a fair share of blames through Nixon and Reagan, the documentary is not kind to the Democratic either. President Bill Clinton made sure that he looked tough on crime and drug as much as his predecessors, and that was how that infamous three-strikes law and the Federal Crime Bill in 1994 came into the picture. Clinton recently admitted that his policies on crime were a mistake, but it was already too late considering what his administration inadvertently accelerated. While the number of US prisoners was only 357,292 in 1970, it was increased to around 1 million in 1990, and then it was further increased to around 2 million in 2000.
As the increasing number of prisoners became a huge problem for the US federal government, American corporations saw golden opportunities from that, and the documentary gives us several infuriating cases of how they profited from their prison business as forming a massive industry complex feeding on mass incarceration. For instance, the privatization of prisons by incarceration firms led to the serious decline in the quality of prison environment in many aspects as they heartlessly pursued profit, and this disturbing tendency extended even to immigrant facilities as shown in the documentary.
Again, prisoners became suitably cheap labor force, and the movie shows us how they were exploited by prominent American corporations including Walmart –and how that was possible thanks to an organization called American Legislature Exchange Council (ALEC), which helped building laws to enrich its associated corporations as a legitimate but shady connection between corporations and lawmakers. Many of these corporations eventually distanced themselves away from using prisoners, but some of them still stick to their usual business mode as pointed out in the documentary, and you will be probably surprised to know who they are.
As it reaches to its devastating conclusion, all of the interviewees in “13th” agree that the system must be fixed as soon as possible, but the prospect does not look that good at this point. While the number of prisoners has been decreased during the Obama Presidency, the American society has kept being shaken by the sad, tragic cases of many young black people shot by the police or guys who supposedly followed that ‘stand your ground’ law, and now racism rises again on full throttle mode with the vile ascension of Donald Trump and his deplorable far-right cronies.
Although things will not probably be changed much for next several years as many of the interviewees in the documentary worry, there is still some hope as shown from the Black Lives Matter movement or the recent nationwide demonstrations protesting against Trump and what he despicably represents. Let’s hope that, after fully recognizing their worsening problem and its undeniable racist origin, the American society and its people shall overcome in the end.