I would be lying if I said that watching the film gave me hope. More than anything, it made me feel like there is no hope. Hope can be defined differently depending on whom you ask. But most definitions are positive, and define hope as something that is worth having in order to keep on living. I once heard a quote that said, “Hope is the only thing stronger than fear.” But what happens when there is no hope? How can we expect people to keep on moving forward in life if they have no hope, no desire for something to happen? Without hope, people give up. Their attitude and emotions change, and its reflected in everything they do. Slowly the people around them are affected and often lose hope as well. The more it spreads, the more difficult it is to plant hope in those hearts and minds. Eventually, the result is entire communities without hope. Even worse, what happens when hope is replaced with fear? How can people without hope, overcome fear that has been instilled in their minds since a young age? There is no easy response. Otherwise, we would know what to do with the young generation of African-Americans and Latinos that are growing up in an environment that gives them little hope.
The film addresses the transformation of slavery in the U.S., and how it evolved from open and brutal slavery into an institutionalized form of slavery that specifically targets minorities. The private individual owner paradigm of antebellum U.S. slavery is what often comes to mind when we hear the term “slavery.” We picture Africans and African-Americans owned by others, forced to work in cotton fields without freedom or rights. Images of scarred backs and broken families start popping up in our mind, making us feel afraid. We start trying to understand how people could have done such a thing to other human beings, and then feel relieved when we tell ourselves that slavery no longer exists. We take a deep breath and thank good old Abe Lincoln, the Civil War and the 13th Amendment for abolishing slavery. We slowly bring our mind back to peace and go on with our lives, ignoring the fact that slavery is still alive.
Although we no longer see individuals being owned by others, slavery has transformed into the contemporary state/corporate slavery permitted by the law. The 13th amendment keeps slavery alive by permitting slavery and involuntary servitude “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” In other words, slavery is constitutionally permissible so long as the individual has been duly convicted of a crime. The mass incarceration of African-Americans and Latinos is part of a system run by politicians and corporations that use the 13th amendment to their advantage. American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is an organization made up of conservative politicians and corporations, such as the Corrections Corporation of American and American Bail Association, which draft state-level legislation that is used by state governments. Nearly all of its bills benefit one of its corporate funders. Corporations like JC Penny, Victoria Secret, Idaho Potatoes, Patriot Missile System, and more, have operated in prisons and profited from punishment. ALEC also wrote “Stand Your Ground”, the Florida state law that allowed George Zimmerman to walk free after shooting and killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
I think that if more people knew how the 13th amendment read, there would be greater opposition towards the language of the 13th amendment that allows for contemporary state/corporate slavery. Usually citizens are not exposed to the black letter law of the constitution and are not aware of the language of the amendments. I for one did not know that the 13th amendment read as such until I watched this documentary. It is eye-opening and disturbing to realize that our nation has actually not moved far from where we began. What I find even more disturbing is to see how the law has been manipulated, or ignored, to find different ways around the laws that have been created to protect every person of this country. These evasions and manipulations preserve institutions such as slavery, to live in new forms.
Aside from feeling a loss of hope, I felt fear after watching the documentary. Fear because it’s scary to see how intertwined corporations are with groups such as ALEC that make regulations that are later passed as law by politicians. It is scary to see how the prison system has become a privately owned business that needs prisoners in order to continue profiting. In other words, these prisons need to be filled so that they stay in business. By teaming up with other corporations such as clothing and furniture stores, these privately owned prisons are making sure that the low-wage work that they can offer is needed by corporations that don’t want to pay more for the creation of their products.
I remember watching The Lion King as a kid, a movie that taught me that we were all a part of the circle of life; a movie that gave me hope. Watching the movie 13th, however, made me feel like we are all part of a circle of privately owned prisons that are partnered with corporations and politicians to ensure that slavery and involuntary servitude are preserved in the U.S. It instantaneously replaced hope with fear; fear for what is yet to come.
Gilberto Orozco, Jr.