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13th: From Slave to Criminal with one Amendment – Director, Ava DuVernay

February 24, 2017

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This is a very powerful documentary although very long. The latter element may excuse it from winning but that should not discourage you from watching it. It is a Netflix production so easily available. The title refers to the 13th amendment to the US Constitution that outlaws slavery but specifically excludes criminals from this protection. The film argues very convincingly that the current US obsession with punishing crime by imprisonment is simply one step in the process of ensuring people of colour and particularly blacks are kept oppressed and enslaved. The film opens with Obama’s statement that while the US holds 5% of the world’s population it holds 25% of the world’s prison population and the black population makes up a highly disproportional number of those prisoners. Prisoners are kept increasingly in privately run prisons which little oversight of conditions. Prisoners are now a key part of the US labour force hired out to firms from agriculture to Victoria’s Secret, although the latter company stopped the practice when it was revealed and customers objected. Still the US economy is increasingly reliant on this labour source not unlike the American south was reliant on slaves prior to the Civil War. Part of the problem with this film is its attempt to tie together two related stories. The first is the clear effort of the US to keep people of colour oppressed and in many cases enslaved. This goes back the Jim Crow laws following the abolishment of slavery and more recently the use of the criminal justice system to maintain that oppression. The second part is the whole US Criminal justice system and the corporatization of the prison system. Imprisonment is an increasingly capitalist driven process rather than justice driven and it is not just blacks and people of colour that suffer. While this adds complexity and length to the film and I think hurts the narrative it is a hugely important film and a must see for all. It won the BAFTA award and deserves a shot at an Oscar as well.

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