13th (2016)

Rates: * * * * 1/2

Why Did I Watch It? Trying to educate myself a little.

Cast, crew, etc.

After the American Civil War ended in defeat for the south, the 13th Amendment was made to the US Constitution; this abolished slavery, the term used was ‘involuntary servitude’, except in instances of criminality. And while this appeared to wrap everything up in a neat little package, American racists simply saw a new opportunity.

This powerhouse doco shows how, in the 150 odd years since the Amendment was enacted, legislators have conspired with big business to stack the criminal deck against people of colour. Introducing laws that target black communities has lead to an emormous swelling of the US prison system, and some alarming statistics; the overall number of people in prison has gone from 350 000 in 1970, to 2.3 million today, and black Americans, who make up 6.5% percent of the general population, constitute 40% of the prison population.

But perhaps even more alarming is what they are doing in prison. For they have not just been put there at the whim of a few powerful rednecks, but they are being forced to perform work, for free, for large American corporations like JC Penney’s and Walmart. The point of the film is obvious: in any other scenario the term for this kind of thing would be ‘slave labour’. Even more astonishing, these large corporations have conspired with conservative legal groups to draft the legislation that has produced this nightmarish system in the first place.

And this is a system without checks and balances, where innocent people are forced to make guilty pleas to access ‘deals’, where even a short prison stint bars a person from accessing basic rights of citizenship, where lives, careers and families are destroyed daily. Where, as one of the talking heads succintly puts it, a well off guilty person is treated better than an innocent poor person. It is a corrupt and thoroughly rotten mess, and all of it produced deliberately and with malice of forethought.

Genuinely shocking.

I like to read about American history, it is rich and interesting and full of larger than life characters, so I thought I knew what this film would be about. But I realised, watching this, that I have only been reading the technicolour version of history, written by the winners. In the shadows an entirely different history has been playing out, and I am grateful (and outraged) that this film has shone some light.

Tightly directed by Ava DuVernay to deliver with maximum impact. A must see.

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