13th: A Timely Message and the Reminder of a Loophole

By Kathryn Cloonan, Managing Editor, June 2020


The United States holds less than 5% of the world’s population and over 20% of the world’s prisoners. In the United States, Black people are five times more likely to be incarcerated than people in the United States who identify as white. And in 2014, 34% of the world’s incarcerated people identified as Black or African American.

These are facts, not overstatements or exaggerations to make a point. 13th, a historical documentary on Netflix zeroes in on the predisposed bias of the United States prison system in the United States and how that bias stemmed from a loophole in the 13th amendment.

13th was filmed in 2016 and directed by Ava DuVernay. The production combines a series of interviews with a variety of people from civil rights activist Angela Davis to conservative tax reduction advocate Grover Norquist. Each interview refers back to the origins of racism in the prison system and how American police, courts, and presidents exploited a flaw in the thirteenth amendment during various eras in the United States such as the Jim Crow era, and the Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton administrations.

What was the loophole? The 13th 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[.]” Hidden between two commas, the constitution claims slavery is allowed in the form of incarceration. 13th highlights how, therefore, during various eras in the United States, by enabling the incarceration of Black people, slavery was reinstated.

Throughout the documentary, 13th showed statistics and how the number of incarcerated people doubled over the span of five years. It also featured discussions on many effective campaigns such as Reagan’s “War on Drugs” and Clinton’s “Three Strikes and you’re out” principle — both of which targeted and punished communities with people of color. The documentary additionally commented on old, popular films such as “Birth of a Nation” that showed the origins of ‘blackface’, dehumanization, and the ‘threatening nature’ of people who identified as black or African American.

But the film is not just historical. Many of its facts are still true, especially those that refer to culpability and police brutality. 13th offers commentary on police officers who tend to find people of color guilty of nothing else other than being “of color”, which can lead to incarceration, and often, death. Racist killings like those shown or mentioned in 13th (Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Emmett Till, etc.) are still happening today. Individuals like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery are dead due to the hatred and racism that remains in the United States.

I not only recommend watching this documentary because of recent events but because it is educational. As a white person who needed to learn more about incarceration history, I watched this movie to educate myself. I am properly horrified, but I am also informed.

13th was made 4 years ago, the Civil Rights Act was passed 56 years ago, and the 13th amendment was ratified 155 years ago. How much has changed? Watch 13th and turn on your local news to find out.


Sources: https://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/

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