The Evolution of Legalized Slavery in the US Prison System

13th

Directed by Av DuVernay (2016)

Film Review

This documentary is a thoughtful exploration of the crucial role of the 13th amendment played in the president mass incarceration of African Americans, who currently provide captive labor for major Wall Street corporations for pennies a day. Featuring such luminaries as Van Jones, Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander, retired Black Congressional Caucus member Charles Rangel, and former (Republican) House Speaker Newt Gingrich*, the film highlights major landmarks in the evolution of the US prison industrial complex.

According to filmmakers, the 13th amendment was the most significant in that it essentially preserved slavery as “punishment for a crime.” Having lost their four million strong slave labor force, Southern states facing economic collapse, were quick to adopt “convict leasing” systems. In this way former slaves arrested for minor crimes such as loitering and vagrancy (ie failure to carry a letter certifying employment), could be leased to plantations, mines, and developing industries.

Likewise the 2015 release of D W Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was instrumental in the emerging mythology of black criminality. The overtly racist films glamorizes the Klu Klux Klan, while implanting the fiction in the public mind of an irresistible African American desire to rape white women. KKK cross burning was another fiction Griffith invented, which the terrorist organization subsequently adopted. .

The film’s release, which greatly increased KKK membership, also triggered thousands of lynchings between World War I and World War II. This state sanction terrorism against Southern Blacks, rather than economic privation, would be the main driver of northward African American migration in the early 20th century.

The film also recounts Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” in which he used subtle “war on drugs,” “law and order,” and “tough on crime” rhetoric to appeal to Southern Democrats’ unease with the civil rights movement – thus persuading them to vote Republican.

Reagan, in turn, would provide the legislation and funding to prosecute the war on drugs, significantly ramping up the arrest and conviction of low income minorities for victimless crimes such as marijuana and crack cocaine possession.

The film attributes most responsibility for the America’s obscene incarceration rate (2 million+ and growing) to Bill Clinton and his 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill. The latter significantly increased the militarization and numbers of cops on the street. Clinton also heavily promoted “three strikes you’re out” and minimum mandatory sentencing laws that have massively increased the US prison census.


*Newt Gingrich: “No one who is white understands the difficulty of being Black in the US.”

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