13th (2016)

“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.”

Except as a punishment for crime. Loophole.

That one little phrase enabled the continuation of slavery in the United States, but through a far different means, that of crime. Since that amendment was passed, the 13th to the United States Constitution, racism has existed not through slavery, but by the criminalization of African Americans and other minorities. It is the subject of Ava DuVernay’s new documentary on Netflix, one we all need to see.

Much of this history is common to all of us. We know about Jim Crow, just as we know about the Civil Rights Movement and the “criminals” of our modern day. Many documentaries have talked about these subjects, but DuVernay, in 100 minutes, covers them all in sequence. I have been a huge supporter of DuVernay’s work ever since Selma, and she has since risen to be one of the predominant Black voices of American culture.

This documentary is not entrenched in rich language and dense legalities, but it is rather told through vernacular interviews and simple animated graphics (meaning I can understand it). If you’d asked me before this documentary about the history of racism in this country, I might have been able to tell you bits and pieces, but now I feel like I understand their connections.

One act has truly led to another. Racism has not only been glorified in years past, but it’s been politicized, commercialized. It used to be something that was socially accepted to do, but it has perverted itself into a system where politicians will use it to get elected, or where corporations will stuff prisons with minor offences so that they might make a profit.

While I can admit that the documentary covers too much ground in not enough time, I feel as if I’ve developed a better understanding of America by watching it. Racism is still prevalent in this country, perhaps to the extent of yesteryear. We just repackage our means and call them something else.

We’ve made a business out of dehumanization. I’m ashamed of us.

3.5 Green

13th is available on Netflix. Watch it now.

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