An Overview of Ava DuVernay’s 13th: The Legacy of Slavery in the U.S. Prison-Industrial Complex

By ALEXINE CASTILLO YAP


Source: Netflix


Shackled Black hands, forced labour, lifelong imprisonment—one is hard-pressed to determine whether these optics describe the enslavement of Black Americans from the 1600s to the 1800s, or whether these describe the US prison-industrial complex in 2020. Perhaps why one would be so hard-pressed to do so is because, in fact, there is no clear delineation between the two.


In a country where systemic racism is built into the DNA of its Constitution, the foundation upon which its capitalist economy stands, and where false, damaging images of “dangerous” Black Americans are deeply embedded in its cultural imagery and media, their subjugation seems to have never ended. With continuing cases of police brutality and the murders of countless unarmed Black civilians—not all of which are captured on film or on camera—the system continues to uphold a racist legacy that is more present than past.


The clause, “except as a punishment for crime”, effectively permits the penal system to turn prisoners into forced labourers—essentially, slaves.

13th, a documentary Netflix film directed by Ava DuVernay, explicates the legacy of slavery in the prison-industrial complex as it critiques the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution. The documentary splits the history of racism against Black Americans into three stages: slavery (1664-1865), Jim Crow (1865-1965) and the current moment of racialised hyperincarceration (1965-). It exposes the highly racialised nature of hyperincarceration and the criminal justice system in the United States, and the multi-generational continuities of slavery and systematic racism—enabled in many ways through a loophole in the 13th Amendment—that is embedded in the United States’ economy, culture and society.


The central tenet to this argument is that the passing of this amendment, whilst superficially ending slavery by stating “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”, did not do enough to end racially-based slavery and, in fact, may have only enabled it. The clause, “except as a punishment for crime”, effectively permits the penal system to turn prisoners into forced labourers—essentially, slaves.


Source: Stephanie Moreno

Ava DuVernay, director of 13th, accepts her award during The 76th Annual Peabody Awards Ceremony at Cipriani, Wall Street on May 20, 2017 in New York City. As a director, she’s been at the forefront of Black representation in American film.


This is extremely apparent in the fact that mass arrests of Black people were made shortly after the passing of the 13th Amendment. The reason was to save the Southern states’ economies, which were founded, if not completely dependent, on, Black slave labour. At the same time, harsh segregation laws—so-called Jim Crow laws—prevented Black people from accessing white spaces. Anti-Black violence, mob-lynchings, and terrorism under the KKK were the norm of this era. Many escaped to the cities not simply to improve their economic state, but out of fear of continued harassment and violence from racist Southern whites. Thus, as one of the interviewees in 13th states, Black Americans today, even the ones who have moved to the inner cities, continue to carry the burden of the racist legacy of the past wherever they go, as their dispossession and displacement were the result of a history of slavery and violent racism that persisted even after the passing of the 13th Amendment.


Where Nixon laid the ground for the rhetoric, President Reagan’s “War on Drugs” campaign enabled the system to be implemented in practice.

Although this segregation era also apparently came to a close with the 1965 Civil Rights Movement and the passage of several laws which ostensibly outlawed discrimination and hate crimes, the system of forcing Black Americans into what is essentially slave labour never seemed to completely go away. In fact, it has only intensified. As mass incarceration began under President Nixon in the 1970s, the practice of associating criminality with Blackness was only perpetuated as antiwar protestors and Black Americans alike were accused of the most petty and minor of crimes (associated usually with marijuana use).


Where Nixon laid the ground for the rhetoric, President Reagan’s “War on Drugs” campaign enabled the system to be implemented in practice. On the surface, it appeared to combat growing drug abuse and drug trade during the 1980s, purportedly aiming to protect American children, deemed the “future” of the nation. However, the rhetoric surrounding it completely obscured its racists underpinnings: the campaign exploited the spatial segregation of Blacks and whites by introducing harsher punishments for the possession of crack cocaine (usually found in inner city neighbourhoods, where more Black people lived) compared to cocaine (usually found in suburban neighbourhoods, were more white people lived).


As a result, the lingering reality is that currently, about 1 in 3 Black males will face a criminal charge in his life. In Alabama, 30% of the Black male population has permanently lost the right to vote as a result of imprisonment.

A steady and exponential increase in incarceration, especially of Black people, can be observed during this period. Accusing them of being “superpredators”, the media served to reinforce and justify this message by constantly broadcasting reports of Black rapists and murderers. This coverage all the while predominantly disregarded white crimes against Black people, especially rape perpetrated by white men against Black women.


As proof that the entire system was colluding on anti-Blackness—it wasn’t merely the Republicans who were cashing in on Black subjugation—Democratic President Bill Clinton also continued to push for pro-carceral policies and laws, chief of which included the three-strikes law, the mandatory minimum sentencing laws and the 1994 Federal Crime Bill which allowed further expansion of the prison system. As a result, the lingering reality is that currently, about 1 in 3 Black males will face a criminal charge in his life. In Alabama, 30% of the Black male population has permanently lost the right to vote as a result of imprisonment.


In the future, the documentary warns, this same system will be replicated as communities of colour are surveilled and imprisoned in their own homes—a different tactic and strategy, for sure, but all within the environment of anti-Black racism built upon a horrendous legacy of slavery.

During this administration, prisons became a multi-billion dollar industry by utilizing inmates, overrepresented by Blacks, as cheap, almost free labour. Major companies like Boeing, JCPenney, and Victoria’s Secret have used this practice for profit. The food industry has also capitalised on prison labour: potatoes, a staple in the American diet, are planted, grown, harvested, packed, and shipped by inmates.


In the future, the documentary warns, this same system will be replicated as communities of colour are surveilled and imprisoned in their own homes—a different tactic and strategy, for sure, but all within the environment of anti-Black racism built upon a horrendous legacy of slavery. Ultimately, a system which actively criminalises Black people, exploits their disadvantaged socioeconomic situations and imprisons them for disproportionately longer periods of time in order to profit off their labour is precisely a modern form of slavery, just packaged under another name.


Watch the documentary for free on YouTube:

References

13th. (Netflix documentary) Directed by Ava DuVernay. 2018.

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