JWR Articles: Film/DVD - 13th (Director: Ava DuVernay) - December 31, 2016


5 5
100 min.

Who says crime [real or imagined] doesn’t pay?

Amendment XIII 

Section 1. 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.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

With the enactment of this amendment on December 18, 1865, the United States government managed to find a method to solve the conundrum of freedom for blacks, most notably in the South, by systemically moving from slavery for niggers to incarceration for criminals.

Ava DuVernay’s gritty documentary pulls no punches as it traces the necessity of keeping America’s economy strong on the backs of its blacks. From 1865 forward, arrests for petty crimes provided a stable, predictable labour pool of convicts for wealthy whites who otherwise might have been forced to provide a decent living for their “employees.” Then before you can say, “in the hood” (sadly no apostrophe) the heady prediction of racism to come from the “greatest film ever” (D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, 1915) rekindled the white supremacist cowards of the Ku Klux Klan into their self-appointed, self-serving role of judge, jury and mostly executioner.

When even their activities began to alarm a growing number of full-fledged citizens, lynchings were largely abandoned in favour of segregation as the means of keeping “those people” in their place and, hopefully, in jail and forgotten.

Once the right to vote was finally given to African-Americans via Lyndon Johnson’s Voting Rights Act (100 years after the 13th Amendment) and civil rights leaders began to rally their people behind them, it fell to the police to ensure the removal of those who had a “dangerous” following by whatever means possible (including murder, in the case of 21-year-old Fred Hampton in 1969).

But then to ensure that the Land of the Free would remain safe from rising crime (most assuredly brought about by the baby boomers flooding the “market”), the Law and Order doctrines of Republicans (George Bush, Ronald Reagan) and Democrats (Bill Clinton) alike (after all, without “fear” how could either party win the South?) produced the foundation for the Prison Industrial Complex. And with the heady combination of readymade laws crafted by ALEC (American Legislation Exchange Council: an incubator for wealthy corporations and greedy politicians to break bread and ruin lives) then passed in Congress, the Senate and state legislators, overflowed with conservative efficiencies for contracting out all things related to and including prisons, it became abundantly clear that the more inmates, the greater the profits and, subsequently, value to shareholders.

In many more ways than one, crime most certainly does pay.

The film, sadly but importantly, provides many examples of the never-ending push to keep black (and more recently brown), impoverished citizens in their place. Using mandatory minimum sentences as a club, countless thousands of those arrested and innocent opt to take a plea bargain (thus reducing their sentences significantly) rather than face the uncertain outcome of going to trial. Unable to make bail, “offenders” languish in detention, a further incentive to plead guilty to something they never did and giving proof to the adage, “Better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent.”

Perhaps the scariest line heard comes from the virulent mouth of President-elect Donald Trump, opining on swift justice without benefit of facts: “I love the good old days.”

And now that the work of the KKK is too often carried out by increasingly militaristic police (full circle again), the image of a young man walking in protest with his peers is especially chilling when his placard comes into sight: “Am I Next?”

Indeed, no one should feel safe. JWR

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Director - Ava DuVernay
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