13th: A Documentary on Modern Slavery

By Florianne Humphrey

On the 8th April 1864, the US Senate passed the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery.  New Netflix documentary 13th claims that this slavery is still very much alive and it is because of the Amendment’s very loophole: it is still permitted as punishment for a crime.

In the opening scene, Barack Obama says “so let’s look at the statistics, the United States is home to 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners.  Let’s think about that.”  Yes, let’s think about – why is this the case for the land of freedom, the upholder of democracy? How did America’s prison population go from 196,441 in 1970 to nearly 2.3 million today?  And why, most importantly, do black Americans make up 40% of this population?

After the end of the Civil War, there was the question of how to replace the 4 million emancipated black slaves.  The response, according to the documentary, was to make arrests for minor crimes such a loitering and allow for convict leasing where prisoners could work for private companies.

This still takes place today, with companies like Whole Foods paying inmates 74 cents a day to prepare food they then sell for high prices.   And the list goes on: IBM, AT&T, Motorola, Microsoft, Intel, Revlon, Victoria’s Secret, Target Store, Whole Foods, Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, and BP are all household names who exploit the prison system for their own profit.

Of course, these companies need labourers in the first place, and it is black people who are targeted.  Slavery may be abolished but, under the guise of lawfulness and democracy, the US government continues to punish a vast majority of their population simply for their skin colour. Whilst 1 in 17 white Americans are imprisoned at some point in their lifetimes, the statistic for black Americans is a shocking 1 in 3.

The documentary investigates the many ways the government uses law and enforcement to victimise black Americans.  One is the War on Drugs, which 13th suggests was Ronald Reagan’s ‘kill two birds with one stone’ tactic: enslave the black population by sentencing them for crack cocaine use, and prevent the hippies from protesting against the Vietnam war by imprisoning them for smoking marijuana.

Even today, the War on Drugs is unjustly skewed against black people. Whilst cocaine and crack cocaine are equally as damaging, possession of 28 grams of crack yields a five-year minimum sentence whilst it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to prompt the same punishment.  And the documentary’s answer to this? Crack is generally used more by lower-class black Americans, whilst cocaine is the drug of the white upper-class.

13th not only touches upon relevant and serious issues but it conveys them using a captivating patchwork of media.  Interviews with experts are cross-cut with rap lyrics about crime – such as Public Enemy’s ‘Don’t Believe the Hype’ – stamped across the screen.  There are archive videos of black men beaten and killed by policemen for doing as little as speeding, photos from civil rights marches across the decades, sharp graphics, and even speeches from the recent US elections.

13th is a breathtakingly bold documentary that takes you through a century’s worth of racial hatred, from Jim Crow to the Civil Rights Movement to the Black Lives Matter campaign, to reveal the terrible truth that nothing much has changed for black people in America.  As one interviewee said in the documentary: “the situation in American is no longer just a civil rights issue, it has become a human rights one as well.”

Stream ’13th’ on Netflix now.

Image: photographymontreal

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