One of the most powerful movies I’ve seen this year wasn’t in a theatre but on Netflix. It is the documentary 13th which seems appropriate to recommend today given that it’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
So here’s a really pathetic thing which I’m not sure is my fault, or that of my education, but as a someone with a law degree I did not realize until I watched this documentary that the 13th Amendment of the Constitution abolished slavery “EXCEPT as a punishment of a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted…” Wow, I mean, I watched Stephen Spielberg’s movie Lincoln and I knew that the 13th Amendment was one of his signature accomplishments but that story kind of ended right after its passage with Lincoln’s assassination and it kind of skimmed over the whole punishment of crime stuff.
Watching 13th you become aware of what the 13th Amendment means in practice, specifically for African-Americans who were/are disproportionally subject to prison labor, to the War on Crime in the 80’s and to today’s huge levels of incarceration, levels so high that there is a name for it, the prison industrial complex. It’s a tough watch, but so necessary to understand how we are where we are today. Just. Watch. It.
I’d like to end with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s from his letter from Birmingham Jail which to an extent addresses crime and punishment and is something to ponder.
“How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
13th was directed by Ava DuVernay, the same powerhouse that gave us the 2014 movie Selma.