Anyone who’s seen the film Lincoln (or simply knows their American history) is aware of how much of a fight it took for Abraham Lincoln and his supporters to get the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution passed. While some people think the Civil War is what ended slavery in America, it actually wasn’t—that was accomplished legislatively, due in large part to Lincoln’s legal foresight, with the 13th amendment to our most hallowed document that was ratified by Congress on Jan. 31, 1865.
But while there was much to celebrate about the law that abolished slavery, the amendment did have an interesting caveat to it if you examine its first section a little closer:
“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.”
So, basically, no one can be treated like a slave—except if you are convicted of a crime.
Now, some might say that Lincoln and his collaborators were merely attempting to head off any future action by some lawyer or legislator or judge citing the 13th Amendment’s language to present the entire concept of government-sanctioned incarceration as unconstitutional. But those 14 words have had an unbelievably negative impact on future American generations—and today, it may be worse than ever.
Director Ava Duvernay’s (Selma) gripping new documentary 13th examines the vast and sprawling consequences of that seemingly harmless Constitutional phrasing. By combining archival footage and a deep dive into historical documentation with interviews from a huge cadre of contemporary activists, politicians, historians, and world leaders, Duvernay deftly explores how the 13th Amendment’s unintended legacy gave rise to the frequently ludicrous, unconscionably lucrative U.S. prison system. Everything from over-aggressive policing to Presidential policy platforms have been impacted, fostering judicial inequality, for-profit incarceration, and the dehumanization of an entire class of people—all too frequently, and depressingly ironically, African-American—all to maintain a system that is slavery in everything but name.
Ava Duvernay’s 13th is streaming on Netflix now. You can check out the riveting trailer for this eye-opening film by visiting here, or watching the video above.