Prison, Slavery and Netflix’s “13th”

     Most people know about the great original shows and films Netflix has to offer, but most do not know about Netflix’s original documentaries. Ava DuVernay, producer and director of “Selma,” recently released her new documentary on Netflix, titled “13th.” This documentary  explores U.S. history from the perspective of African Americans. From the Civil Rights Movement to Nixon and Reagan’s War on Drugs to the impact of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), “13th” questions all of these events and institutions and asks how they shape our country today. “13th” portrays all of these events with the same editing style and dialogic tone displayed in the majority of our modern political campaign ads. It shows the growth of the U.S. prison population and its relationship to our government’s politics and policies. This is all done with sufficient editing skills and the bringing together of historical news clips and several interviews and firsthand testimonies.

     One of the main interviewees in “13th” is Eastern graduate Bryan Stevenson (‘81), writer of “Just Mercy.” In the documentary Stevenson states: “We have a criminal justice system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. Wealth, not culpability, shapes outcomes.” Stevenson and the other interviewees argue that our justice system needs to be founded on pure and unbiased justice.

     “13th” portrays the progression of U.S. history, suggesting most of the government’s law enforcement programs were created to keep African Americans in prisons. The suggested beginning of this progression is the XIII Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Written in 1864, the XIII Amendment 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.” In the 1860s, this meant the end of the South’s greatest economic resource: slaves. A loophole, however, was exploited from this amendment: African Americans could be forced back into servitude as punishment for a crime.

     Years of African Americans being harshly convicted for misdemeanors gave way to the  creation and implementation of the Jim Crow laws. These laws made segregation in the South legal, and so to fight these laws resulted in being deemed a criminal. The Civil Rights Movement reformed laws of citizenship, but those rights of citizenship could be revoked if someone was convicted of being a criminal.

     Following the Civil Rights Movement was Nixon and Reagan’s War on Drugs. What was  portrayed as a means of dealing with a supposed crack epidemic can be seen as a cover for putting African Americans in prisons. According to John Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s advisors, “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar Left and black people….We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.”

     The next major change in the U.S. justice system was Bill Clinton’s “three strikes” law. Clinton described the three strikes law in his first State of the Union Address: “When you commit a third violent crime you will be put away. Three strikes and you are out!” This led to the creation of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which meant that convicted offenders had to serve specific minimum sentences with no leeway for judges to decide that a less severe sentence might fit the particular circumstances surrounding the crime. These offenders had to serve a mandatory minimum sentence in prison without parole.

     Along with these government policies is a private club known as ALEC. One of the interviewees in “13th” says “ALEC is this private club, and its members are politicians and corporations….Should politics and corporations be in the same private club?” ALEC has proposed several laws that states have employed today, such as Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” policy, which authorizes an individual’s right to defend themselves from a perceived threat. ALEC also helped fund the Correction Corporation of America, which are private prisons that have to remain filled at all times. This creates the possibility that people will be put in prison, even if they have not committed a crime. As a “nonprofit organization” ALEC nevertheless wields a tremendous amount of influence with little oversight or accountability.

     “13th” addresses historic events, policies highlighted in this article and other facts as well. But in order to receive the full experience as intended by the director, you will have to watch this documentary for yourself. I think the documentary tries to bring together one too many coincidences. Additionally, the documentary takes a five-minute break to deliberately portray Donald Trump in a negative light (it took sound clips from Donald Trump and played them over black and white footage of the Civil Rights Movement and the Ferguson riots), which made “13th” regrettably feel more like a propaganda piece than a documentary. Still, it was interesting to see what U.S. justice policies look like from a different perspective.

     Ava DuVernay’s “13th” will not appeal to everyone, but if you want to see beyond your own perspective and take a look at America from an entirely new or all-too-familiar perspective, then you should watch this documentary. While you are watching it, I encourage you to actively form your own personal opinion of its claims.

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