The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Movie Review:
13th—Mass Incarceration Exposed

Jan 23, 2017

13th is a powerful documentary by director Ava DuVernay, director of the movie Selma.

Right now, the movie is available only on Netflix and must be viewed online. The first 5 minutes goes slow, but hang in there. The history of terrorism, repression and mass incarceration being used intentionally against the black population is exposed in a gripping way.

As a film maker, Ava DuVernay is interested in how movies and the media are used as a weapon for spreading racist ideas. This is NOT the main point of the movie, but the film shows the damage this does.

The movie starts out with the voice of outgoing President Obama, saying the U.S. now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. But the rest of the movie shows how both parties—Democrats and Republicans—worked with corporations to create this situation.

The movie touches on the history of black-led freedom movements of the 1960s and 70s. It looks at the use of criminality and mass incarceration to repress and control the black population. It looks at the wedge intentionally driven between the black and white population.

In 1970, the prison population in the U.S. was 357,292. But by 2014, it had exploded to 2,306,200. The movie explains how and why this happened.

Problems with mass incarceration are traced back to the time of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. This was the amendment that supposedly granted freedom to all Americans. It included a loophole, freedom “except as a punishment for crime.” The movie makes the argument that ever since the end of slavery, this loophole has been the preferred method of the ruling class to “legally” repress black freedom struggles.

The use of mass incarceration to divide and conquer the mass movements of the 1960s is laid bare with a quote from President Nixon’s advisor, John Ehrlichman. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people.... We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be against the war or black... but by... criminalizing both heavily [with the war on drugs], we could disrupt those communities.... Did we know we were lying about the war on drugs? Of course we did.”

The movie mentions the economic crisis that started in 1971, and hints that mass incarceration helped the ruling class to deal with the rising unemployment by locking up so many black men. It takes a closer look at the role of corporations and lobbyists in writing laws to increase the black and immigrant prison population and how they profit from this.

The movie offers an unflinching look at the history of black oppression and the role played by so-called “reforms” in introducing the newest, slickest version of repression.

The film 13th provides valuable information and ends with the hope that a new generation will make use of this information in struggle. It should not be missed.