December 6, 2016 -- This documentary about America's enormous prison industry and how it came about is powerful and provocative. The filled-to-overflowing prison population in the U.S., the Black Lives Matter movement and the election of Donald Trump are all tied together in this movie that gets its name from the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
The 13th Amendment (see the excellent film “Lincoln” about how this amendment was passed by Congress) reads in section one: “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, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
According to this film, the parenthetical expression in the first sentence of the amendment, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” constitutes a “loophole” which has been used ever since to persecute and exploit blacks economically and politically.
This documentary takes particular aim at the influential epic film “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) as being a catalyst and a blueprint for the revival of the Ku Klux Klan and the criminalization and vilification of black males in particular. According to the film, black males had not been considered particularly dangerous before D.W. Griffith cast them as rapists of white women in his film, “The Birth of a Nation.”
According to the film, the criminalization of black men was a way to get slave labor, chain gangs and prison labor (still practiced today) to support the southern economy after the Civil War. Mass incarceration (America, with only five percent of the World's population, incarcerates 25 percent of the world's prisoners) which followed the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, was one way to legally deny millions of blacks the right to vote.
The film has some shocking segments about profound problems with the American criminal justice system, such as a young black male held for three years without trial, simply because he insisted on his innocence and refused to accept a plea bargain deal. The film follows the vast increase of mass incarceration after the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, first under Nixon, then the huge increases in prisoners under Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
Under Nixon and Reagan, Republicans were able to duplicate the successes of the old Democratic Party's pro-segregationist “southern strategy.” The key dog whistle phrase, used by successful candidates from Nixon to Trump is “law and order,” even when rates of crime decline, raising the specter of the menacing black male still gets votes.
The film also addresses influence of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the National Rifle Association in the passage of laws across the country that have resulted in some blacks being killed with impunity. This, and videos of police shootings of unarmed black men, has led to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Director Ava DuVernay (“Selma”) has made a very powerful documentary film which highlights a danger to American democracy. There has been a rash of attacks against police lately, which can be seen as a direct reaction against police shootings of black men, and the other injustices seen in the film. Police have been beating and murdering black men for many years, but until recently video evidence of this was scarce. Now these incidents can be quickly captured, streamed or uploaded quickly to the internet for the world to see. It looks like if we don't change this, the violence will continue to escalate, on both sides. This film rates an A.
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