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The Themes Raised in 13th Documentary by Ava Duvernay

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Ava DuVernay’s documentary titled “13th”, refers to the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Section 1 of the amendment, which was passed by congress on January 31, 1865, and accepted by the states on December 6, 1865 states that, “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.” Ms. DuVernay’s examination and focus in her documentary was on the matters of imprisonment in the United States. Her documentary particularly focused on the U.S. having the highest rate of incarceration and America representing five percent of the worlds populations but twenty five percent of the worlds prisoners. It focused on the history of racial inequality, mistreatment, criminalization, and the unequal majority of those incarcerated being persons of the African American population and provided statistics which showed that African Americans made up a 6.5 percent of the U.S. population and a vast 40 percent of the prison population.

Discussions in the film were on the way’s oppression has continued to abuse African Americans in the United States, even long after the law which made it illegal to force anyone into slavery was ratified. Although the 13th Amendment was to reassure that involuntary servitude and slavery was prohibited, there was a part that created a major loophole, an exception to this law. This part was located in section one of the amendment and stated, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”. In the simplest form of understanding, this basically meant that slavery was illegal except as a punishment for the crime. The creation and groundwork of Ms. Duvernay’s 13th documentary was a product of this loophole.

Profit is what drove slavery and when slavery was abolished, the South became short of four million slaves. The result of this matter led southerners to come up with new ways of balancing economic growth. They began arresting African Americans and placing them into prisons for petty reasons like loitering. African Americans were also known as “super predators”. This term presented a view for African American men practically as animals that were out of control and a threat to whites, white women to be specific. Upon being arrested, they were later used and placed as workers for free labor for private parties. The documentary provided statistics which stated that one in three African Americans males would go to jail during their lifetime, whereas, one in seventeen White Americans would go to jail. This fact was a demonstration of how racism was and still is a continuing factor and how discriminatory our criminal justice system still is.

Ms. Duvernay’s documentary provides us with a persuasive outlook on how todays prisons, and workforce systems are comparable to slavery and how its practices still exist in today’s society with mass incarceration. Prisons authorize private corporations to make millions by prisoner’s free labor being used for profit. These corporations are dependent on mass incarceration and locking up as many individuals as possible. An example the film discusses on is the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC), which brought politician and corporations together and created controversial immigration bills and made laws that enabled larger detention rates. ALEC was accused of having a part in the privatization of prisons, again enabling an increase in the prison population for profiting purposes. An example of a bill created by ALEC was the SB1070. This bill allowed law enforcement to stop and put anyone who looked like an immigrant into a detention facility which was one cause that led to an increase in prison population. The result of this leads us to questioning the pros and cons of running a prison like a business. In this case focusing on the cons of prison privatization. Every business need’s clients and in this specific situation we’ve identify these clients as prisoners, which then leads us back to the criminal justice system incarcerating larger numbers of people who were then forced into workforce for free labor profit.

This documentary sheds light on the importance and need of prison reforms and a need for a change in the system, which addresses the economic aspects and efforts, policies, and the laws of prison operations that need to be put into place. It was really an eye opener on the legacy of slavery, the politics of mass incarceration, black stigma and the African American representation. The loophole and the way in which Ms. DuVernay explains her findings based on the past and present statistics, definitely provided a new view on how the 13th amendments exception still allowed forms of slavery to continue in society. A question that was introduced at the beginning of the documentary is still a question that I believe stands out more today than ever before. That question is on freedom and being completely free. Will we ever see a tomorrow where racism and all the forms of segregation has ended and where there is finally peace? I believe in order to answer this question we need to look and understand that change doesn’t necessarily come from the government and politicians but from every individual themselves.   

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