Steven Spielberg left out a glaring aspect of the 13th amendment in his film “Lincoln.” The amendment states that slavery and involuntary servitude be abolished “except for punishment for a crime.” Let that sink in. Lincoln didn’t so much “abolish” slavery as give his white capitalist brethren an expedient way of using prisons as a profitable slave industry. While filmmaker Ava DuVernay doesn’t fully articulate the incremental genocide that blacks in America have suffered since the first slaves were brought to this country from Africa, she spells out the reality in no uncertain terms.
DuVernay opens the film with Obama speaking on the subject of American prisons. “So let’s look at the statistics. The United States is home to five percent of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners. Think about that.”
It’s an especially provocative remark coming from a black President under whose watch incarcerations of blacks have skyrocketed while blacks have continued to be systematically murdered on American streets by police officers who never go to jail for their crimes.
With the aid of African-American Studies historians, activists, and politicians DuVernay traces the propagandistic influence of D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” that escalated mass killings of blacks throughout the South by racist whites paying heed to Griffith’s dog whistle. Many more such coded signals, such as “war on crime” and “war on drugs” enabled deranged politicians like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to ravage black communities while feeding a prison industrial complex that continues to grow. Naturally, this crisis links directly to modern corporations such as Google, DirectTV, eBay, GM, Wendy’s, Coca-Cola, Johnson&Johnson, Altria, Pfizer, Walmart, the Koch Brothers, American Bail Coalition, McDonalds, Kraft, P&G, Google, Shell, Jpay, Aramark, Sprint, PG&E, Ford, and of course Facebook.
A major flaw in the film arrives via fleeting chyrons identifying a plethora of articulate interviewees that populate the film. It would have been helpful for the audience to know whom we’re listening to onscreen. Nonetheless, “13TH” is a vital documentary toward understanding America’s systemic abuse of blacks that takes on many nefarious forms, not the least of which is this country’s prison system that forces prisoners to produce goods for companies like Victoria’s Secret. This Netflix-produced documentary isn’t the best doc you’ll see this year, but may well be the most important.
Not Rated. 100 mins. A- (Four Stars — out of five / no halves)