The 13th: Thoughts on the Netflix Documentary
October 9, 2016
The documentary film The 13th is a solid film. It is extremely informative for anyone who lacks knowledge about progressive politics or who does not regularly watch Democracy Now with Amy Goodman (or listen to Pacifica Radio)--which I admit is the vast majority of our republic.
Many think the film was masterful, I thought it was a bit disjointed and all over the place.. The film tries to make an interesting argument--that a significant portion of black and Latino communities still live in slavery as of 2016--despite (or because of) the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery (i.e., involuntary servitude except in criminal punishment).
For me the biggest problem is that the director doesn't really define slavery. Is it involuntary labor? Is it simply having your liberty to move taken away from you? or both? The film does a great job of showing how prison is linked to economics. The film shows how blacks were imprisoned shortly after emancipation in order to take advantage of free labor. While the film shows that prisoners today perform labor for corporations--it does not really complicate this. Most of these corporations pay prisoners--albeit heavily discounted wages. And prisoners do get to opt into this type of work. So the correlation to slavery starts to dissolve..
What the film shows is that, today, the real driving impetus behind locking up black and brown folks is to fill spaces. When cells are filled, prison service providers are compensated. This isn't slavery in any traditional sense. This seems like something much more perverse. It is a bounty system where a mostly affluent and white America has paid private entities to work closely with the state to capture and collect black and brown unwanteds. It is more perverse because, at least slavery was focused on exploiting labor to increase some material surplus. In our current system, exploiting labor seems to be the side chick benefit to a system that subsidizes the erasure of black presence. Society is creating an oubliette.
The pitfall of this film is that it plays into society's fascination with slavery. There are clearly links to slavery--which we should always be mindful of--but this is current scenario is some new shiznit.