Note to the Academy: The Oscar for this year's Best Documentary belongs to 13th, Ava DuVernay's incendiary, indelible and indispensable document about the myth of racial equality in America. As we all learned in school, the 13th amendment – enacted on Jan. 31, 1865 – abolished involuntary servitude in these United States. Like hell it did. There was a loophole, which basically said no servitude "except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." Translation: If you're white and rich enough to afford a lawyer, no problem, If you're a minority with nothing, you're fucked. Welcome to the era of mass criminalization and the prison industrial complex, where African-American inmates are forced into unpaid manual labor by a systemic corporate culture that profits from human bondage. Slavery is alive and well. And hot damn, do profiteers want it to continue.
DuVernay, the brilliant director of “Selma,” has made a film that possesses a piercing relevance in the age of Black Lives Matter and the unspeakable horror and tragedy of escalated police shootings. “13TH” looks at the current American state of “mass incarceration,” a phrase that has quickly grown numbing with repetition; DuVernay puts the (disturbing) feeling back into it. She takes off from an era in which our nation — as President Obama observes in the film’s opening moments — contains just 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners. DuVernay’s chronicle of this crisis is heartrending and enraging; if that’s all the movie did, it would be invaluable. Yet “13TH” also travels deep into history, connecting every link in the chain to reveal how we got here. The metaphor is intentional: DuVernay’s message is that the psychodynamics of slavery, and the economic logistics of it, have never gone away. Instead, they went underground, mutating into different forms (Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the “war on drugs”) as the decades rolled on.
“13TH” traces the connection back to the end of the Civil War, and — in a grand horrific irony — to the passage of the 13th Amendment itself, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” This meant that once the war was over, former slaves could be arrested on trivial charges like vagrancy and loitering and turned into prisoners, and just like that…they were slaves again. Hence the image of men singing spirituals on the chain gang: a kind of legalized slavery. The link to “The Birth of a Nation” is that Griffith, working with actors in blackface, took the image of the “black criminal” and turned it into a demonic mythology that undergirded the 20th century. The “black criminal” became a monster to be feared and repressed, resulting in a vicious cycle that continues to this day: the presumption of black guilt in crime, leading to conviction, leading to incarceration, leading to a de facto systemization of imprisonment that is really the ethos of slavery in disguise.
The conflict of interest is stunning. For a long time, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest private prison company, was a member of ALEC, and so was Wal-Mart, which had a vested interested in playing up “stand your ground” laws because the result of those laws is that gun sales shot up (and Wal-Mart is a major merchandiser of firearms). The very notion that the American prison system is now being run by private corporations, with a profiteering interest in maintaining a large prison population, represents a fundamental — and indefensible — transfer of power in our society. The entire prison system has become a racket. The word for that situation is…well, I’m a film critic, not an editorial writer, so I won’t say the word. What I will say is: Watch “13TH” and draw your own conclusion.