|'slavery has simply been rebranded'|
The House I Live In was an interesting 2012 Documentary which looked at the fabled 'war on drugs' and the US prison system through the very personal affectations of director Eugene Jarecki. It had truth, and power, but it felt a little forced; fitted to Jarecki's points rather than a true investigation of how that and other political tools have affected the US populace.
13th, on the other hand, fits the subject like a glove. Though it covers many of the same points as Jarecki's film, it does so from a much more naturalistic point of view. Film-maker Ava DuVernay postulates that the 13th amendment to the United States constitution (the one which abolished slavery), has a built in fail safe to keep mainly black Americans repressed and, often, imprisoned. Contextually it is difficult not to see this as a female black film-maker rightfully wrestling a topic back from the the white male establishment (though perhaps that is harsh on Jarecki: his film does make several solid points).
DuVernay's starting point is the precise wording of the 13th, catnip to this English graduate in particular. In stating that 'Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude... shall exist within the United States', the amendment inserts the clause, 'except as a punishment for crime'. The director's position, therefore, is that slavery has simply been rebranded. Minor crimes are punished with potentially major ramifications. The system feeds a massive structure of essentially free labour, run by mega-profitable conglomerates.
Like a scientific thesis (an admirable position to take in documentary-making) DuVernay tests her argument against the thoughts of prominent stakeholders in the discussion; politicians, sociologists and campaigners. In terms of form, there's little here new. Animations and neat graphical explorations of figures break up the talking heads. But, for a Documentary that takes this approach, this 'let me prove it to you' process works better than reinventing the wheel ever would have. Figures such as the fact that 97% of cases in the US only go as far as 'plea bargain' stage, with innocent people accepting reduced punishment for guilty verdicts, in order to save court time, need little dressing up.
13th has been available for some time on Netflix and, with today's fast-moving political climate, there is an argument that it has already dated. There is some framing within the film of the choice between sticking with the current system (voting for Donald Trump) or forcing a change in thinking (voting for Hilary Clinton). That choice has now been made and the tragedy of it can be revisited with a viewing of this. Amongst the many other ills that seem likely in a Trump regime there is, as one commentator puts it, the chance to be treated better if you are 'rich and guilty than if you are poor an innocent'. DuVernay's Documentary, though perhaps now a little behind the times, remains a relevant portrayal of dark days indeed.
13th was playing on Netflix.