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Ava DuVernay's '13th' Makes Comparison Between Slavery, Mass Incarceration

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Director Ava DuVernay’s new documentary “13th” explores how mass incarceration in the United States, which disproportionately affects African Americans, reflects the injustice of slavery.


DuVernay, who received an Academy Award nomination for “Selma” in 2014, said in an interview the film “may shake up everything you thought you already knew about racial equality in America. And that’s just what it’s designed to do.”

The NAACP’s criminal justice fact sheet states, “African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites.” Legislation such as the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, a sprawling criminal justice bill that received bipartisan support, created mandatory minimum sentences that disproportionately affected African Americans and Latinos.

Combined with racial profiling, the result is staggering amounts of Blacks currently incarcerated.Despite being only 13 percent of the overall U.S. population, 40 percent of those who are incarcerated are Black, according to the Center for American Progress.

“The 13th Amendment says slavery will be abolished in the land,” DuVernay told ABC News. “But there’s a criminality clause, a little exception, a loophole that says slavery is abolished except as punishment for a crime. Which means slavery is not abolished if you need to use it as punishment for a crime. And that’s what we track in the ’13th.'”

The 13th Amendment to the Constitution was passed by the Congress on January 31, 1865, and ratified by the states on December 6, 1865. The film suggests white, politically powerful Americans createda new form of bondage for Blacks in the criminal justice system.

“We now have more African Americans under criminal supervision than all the slaves back in the 1850s,” says Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) in the trailer for the documentary.

At a panel on criminal justice reform during the Democratic National Convention in July in Philadelphia, Booker addressed the fact that racial disparities in incarceration and sentencing keep people of color from the polls, such as in Florida.

“One in five people in Florida cannot vote because of felonies,” he said.

Regarding this year’s presidential election, “13th” includes a video montage of what Trump may be alluding to with his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.” He also refersto himself as “The Law and Order President.”

Related Story: Trump Supporters Heed his Call for Hate, Violence

A two-minute clip was tweeted on Twitter October 12. It shows footage of Trump supporters at rallies spitting in the faces of Black people and pushing them around, which is juxtaposed with footage from the Civil Rights-era when violence was inflicted against Blacks for protesting, and it was permitted by law enforcement.

Related Story: GOP Senator: U.S. Has an ‘Under-Incarceration Problem’

The documentary notes that legislation passed by both Republican and Democratic administrations in the past has fueled the current incarceration boom.

President Barack Obamavisited a federal prison El Reno, Okla., to talk about criminal justice reform in July 2015. He is the first sitting president to do so. This year, Obama has commuted the sentences of 590 federal inmates who committed low-level drug crimes.Hehas now commuted the sentences of more individuals in one year than in any other single year in our nation’s history.In total, the President has commuted 774 sentences, more than the previous 11 presidents combined.

In July, the Democratic Party released its platform. It is the first time in history that a specific call to end mass incarceration has been included in a major political party’s platform.

“We will push for a societal transformation to make it clear that Black lives matter and that there is no place for racism in our country,” theplatform states.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton haspresented a planthat she said focuses on dismantling systemic racism, including the issues of environmental racism, the school to prison pipeline and criminal justice reform.

The documentary “13th” also incorporates video footage regarding recent police-related deaths of African American males, including Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald and Philando Castile.

“13th” was the opening night film of the New York Film Festival in September and debuted on Netflix October 7. It will have a limited theatrical release.

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