13th is a documentary that delves into the effects and symptoms that the 13th amendment has had on our modern society and enables its viewers to see civilization from a different perspective. The viewers are walked through our nation from the time the 13th Amendment was constitutionalized to modern society.
The documentary begins by highlighting the fact that our economy was functioning because of slavery. People were producing goods for no money, so when the 13th amendment was constitutionalized and people were set free, we started using more money to employ the African Americans that were once slaves. Once they found their way into the workforce, whites started looking for a way to win back the money they were losing to the people working their fields. The 13th amendment explicitly says “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.” After discovering the loophole where criminals are not free, African Americans, especially males, were arrested and imprisoned one after another. This is where we see the first prison boom in the country because African Americans were being arrested for minor crimes such as vagrancy and loitering. Because millions of African Americans were treated as property until just a little while ago, society needed people to work where no one was working. Our economy had hit the lowest point it had hit, with the exception of the Great Depression, because there was no one to produce the goods that were once being produced for practically nothing (money-wise).
Birth of a Nation was a movie that was released around the time that some say not only accurately predicted our future but was “almost directly responsible for the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.” Throughout the three-hour-long movie, we see a racial portrayal of what this nation would soon become. Birth of a Nation started around the time of the end of the Civil War and continued until the KKK found themselves in the South attempting to save them from a “black take over.” This movie “told the story whites wanted people to know.” Birth of a Nation also depicted a bunch of fake scenarios that were put into the movie as another way to entertain its future viewers; the Ku Klux Klan never burned the cross. “It was put in for a great cinematic something.” After the movie was released, African American murders became a popular topic to see in newspaper headings. Unfortunately, lynchings and shootings became normal.
When the illegality of these actions arose, a legal solution was proposed: segregation. As segregation spread throughout the nation, civil rights activists decided it was time to start a human rights movement. This enabled politicians to use the media to portray the activists as criminals, saying they were purposefully violating the segregation laws in the South. Throughout this movement, we see African Americans, men, in particular, turn criminality into something to be proud of. Men such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X began to make a name for themselves by speaking to their people and speaking for their people. They might be celebrated people today, but during this time, they were “the worst [people] on the planet” or “the most dangerous.” The movie mentioned that the world had turned into a “racial super bomb with a short fuse.”
Right around this time, it is announced that the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were taking away people’s rights. We see an increase in crime rates during this time, just simply because of a change in demographic. Politicians use this information to help them keep the laws in place; if they were to remove these Acts, the country would be rewarded in crime.
In the 1970s, we found more people being imprisoned; this is where we see mass incarceration. Nixon was trying to get elected, and we see crime stand in for race. “Nixon introduced the War on Crime which was a play on words; it was really Nixon fighting back on the Civil Movements sweeping the nation. He began to use racial stereotypes to his benefit, going around the South, persuading the poor and working classes to the Republican Party through racial appeals.
Once Ronald Reagan became president, he turned this rhetorical war into a literal one. He introduced the 1982 Modern War on Drugs where drugs became more of a crime issue than a health issue. Part of his response to this “war” was sending his wife out into the public on a “Just Say No” campaign where she stressed the importance of refusing drugs. This is where we see a rise in the popularity of cocaine. Prison sentences for 1 ounce of crack was the same time someone served for 100 ounces of powder cocaine; this was made to target African American and Latin communities because of the popularity of the form of drug in certain communities.
While these arrests for drugs were taking place, people at home were watching them on television. Shows like “Cops” were overrepresenting African Americans in the media as criminals. The term “superpredator’ starts to arise in the media; people with “no conscience and no empathy” were the ones given this name. People today look back and are in disbelief with how many people, especially African Americans, believed that some of our children were beasts that needed to be controlled.
The next election, we see Dukakis leading in the election until it was released that he supported allowing prisoners out on the weekends. It was showcased that Willie Horton, the stereotypical black male, who stabbed his wife, was let out that weekend. It was purposefully advertised that it was a black male that was allowed out because it led Dukakis to lose the Southern states. Bush was then able to swoop in and win the election by creating fear of black men and a sense of security in Bush.
When Clinton was elected, he added 60 new federal offenses, increased the maximum sentencing, and got rid of parole. Due to this new source of power, police were found to be using violence more and more often. And with the superflux of people getting arrested, prisons needed more money to take care of all of their inmates, especially since Clinton had gotten rid of parole. Instead of being able to send people out as they brought them in, no one was leaving. They were shoving people into already full prisons. As a result of this new need for expansion, we see the country reach a new level of poverty because their tax dollars were being used to expand these prisons.
In essence, 13th brought forth information that is typically looked over, especially in schools. The movie showcases the nation’s history (at least from the 13th Amendment to now) and gives its viewers a new perspective on the past few decades.