September 27th, 2016

The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, widely assumed to simply end slavery, doesn’t. The amendment reads:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, [emphasis mine, JH] shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Two books—WEB DuBois’ Black Reconstruction in America and Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877—make up the backbone of the research for Absent Son, my current novel-in-progress. Both works detail how even before the ratification of the 13th Amendment at the end of 1865, local political forces in the South passed and enforced laws governing vagrancy to feed a prison-to-plantation system to keep the cotton flowing to the North. Ava DuVernay’s film documents how that system continues to the present day.

Nigel M Smith, in The 13th: inside Ava DuVernay’s Netflix prison documentary on racial inequality writes:

[DuVernay’s The 13th] examines why the US has produced the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with the majority of those imprisoned being African American. The title of the film refers to the 13th amendment to the constitution: “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.”

Beginning with DW Griffith’s technically groundbreaking but profoundly racist 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, The 13th is reported to take in the civil rights movement, the 1994 Crime Bill, which extended the death penalty and encouraged states to lengthen prison sentences, and the surge of the Black Lives Matter movement. It makes its debut on Friday at the New York film festival, the first non-fiction film to ever do so. The festival director and selection committee chair, Kent Jones, has said in a statement that The 13th is a “great film” and “an act of true patriotism”.

The trailer sets up DuVernay’s documentary as a provocative a mix of archival footage and testimonies from activists, politicians and historians, including Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, Angela Davis, Senator Cory Booker, Grover Norquist, Khalil Muhammad, Craig DeRoche, Shaka Senghor, Malkia Cyril and Henry Louis Gates Jr. Hillary Clinton’s controversial “super-predators” remark from a 1996 speech also makes an appearance.

The 13th debuts on Netflix and in select theaters on 7 October, DuVernay, best known for directing 2014’s Oscar-nominated Selma, had kept the project a secret from the public during its production

This one film may justify my Netflix subscription.

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