NYFF Review: Ava DuVernay’s ’13th’ Confirms the American Prison System as a New Era of Slavery
Growing up, prison seemed like an abstract concept to me, one reserved for “Law & Order” episodes and select family members who would be absent every other Christmas or Thanksgiving holiday. It wasn’t until I arrived in college in a class on Black Urban Studies, that I was educated about the mass incarceration that occurs in this country. I watched the 1998 documentary “The Farm: Angola, USA,” and read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” It was through these two mediums that the system of dehumanization and oppression was revealed to me. I distinctly remember feeling horrified that the prisoners of Angola were required to pick cotton as a part of their daily tasks. Slavery was, after all, long ago abolished. However, I soon learned and continued to learn that nothing ever really goes away; it’s merely reinvented into a more easily digestible package ripe for public consumption.
Slavery was abolished in 1865 with the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which 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, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” That loophole in the text is essential. It allowed the government to begin criminalizing Black bodies as a way to continue stealing their labor, since slavery was no longer legal. In a rapidly paced documentary which spans from the end of the Civil War until the present day, Ava DuVernay’s “13th” is a sobering look at our corrupt prison and judicial systems, and the relentless terrorizing of Black people.
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