13th — Why Words Matter


13th — Why Words Matter

13th is a powerful look at systemic racism and what is being called the criminalization of an entire sector of society.  Nominated in 2017 for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, 13th is the story of how our nation — unwittingly to many of us — has managed to systematically keep the black population enslaved despite the language of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.  The film, directed by Ava DuVernay, was released back in 2016, but has gained traction recently as the death of George Floyd instigates protests worldwide, like a tourniquet to keep pressure the wound so it doesn’t kill us.

The wording of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America reads as follows:



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.


Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

DuVernay’s argument is simple.  The language except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted has, in effect, kept slavery alive even after the country fought a bloody civil war to abolish it.  

The war on drugs started with Nixon, a concept dreamed up by Nixon’s counsel, John Ehrlichman of Watergate fame,  and this “war” disproportionately affected black men in the way justice was dispensed.  Nixon called drug abuse “public enemy number one” and vowed to eradicate it, a battle cry that resonated especially loudly with Southern voters.  This sleight of hand worked and Nixon resoundingly won the electoral college vote although he only narrowly won the popular vote the first time around.

In 1970, one year into Nixon’s first term, there were approximately 338,000 people in incarcerated; today, that number is well over 2 million, and of that number, almost half a million are in jail without yet having been convicted of a crime because they can’t afford bail

We in the U.S. have 5% of the global population, but 25% of its prison population.   Today, one in 17 white men will be incarcerated versus one in three black men and one in six Latino men.  That should make anyone watching 13th do more than raise an eyebrow.

DuVernay argues that, like systemic poverty, you become acculturated to systemic racism and the very subtle ways in which the system has been skewed against the black community. 

If Nixon started the problem by campaigning on a law and order platform,  Ronald and Nancy Reagan kicked it up several notches with their own war on drugs, and it really shot through the roof — which was surprising to me to learn of someone who at one time had the moniker “the first Black President — with Bill Clinton’s “three strikes” rule which took discretionary sentencing away from judges and replaced it with mandatory sentencing.  That meant that if you were busted three different times, say, twice with a single joint, for example, and the third time for a violent crime, you would be serving life in prison even though the first two crimes were more likely misdemeanors.  President Clinton has since apologized for this law.  

All those who have died at the hands of the police — many of them just kids — have set the stage for the protest following the death of George Floyd, events that have been simmering for years but seemed to have coalesced overnight.

13th returns to lawyer and author, Brian Stevenson, civil rights activist, Angela Davis, former Obama-administration official Van Jones, and Harvard Professor, Henry Louis Gates, among others, again and again to chronicle the difficulties African Americans face in their daily lives and how society has been engineered to create barriers to their success.  The commentators provide commentary and background as each of these individuals has their own personal stories — vis-á-vis their lives and careers — of insidious societal behavior, yet each one has successfully navigated a larger life despite the handicaps they’ve experienced as a result of the color of their skin.

If you want to see why words matter, watch 13th.

Today is July 4th, the day our country celebrates freedom from tyranny and rule of the oppressor.  It’s time for us to take a long look inside to see how we are oppressing each other and what we can do to really make our nation The Land of the Free for all its inhabitants, not just select groups.

Watch 13th, currently streaming on Netflix.  Take a look at what’s happening on the other side of the fence.  Consider it your patriotic duty as an American.

About Pam Lazos

writer, blogger, environmentally hopeful
This entry was posted in movie review, movies, racism, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to 13th — Why Words Matter

  1. Damn, that’s some frightening data.I’m all for demolishing the presence of drugs in our country, but we can’t just fight it the same way decade after decade. Drugs are reaching us in new ways (opioid subscripts, for instance) therefore we need new ways to counter them. Constant incarceration clearly ain’t cuttin’ it, so we do we keep pushing it? Personally, I’m guessing because it’s “what we’ve always done.” Just like any environmental crisis, change is hard work. We as a country need to be willing to do the hard work.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Pam for bringing this to our attention. Things have to change and fast!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. cath says:

    25% of the world’s prisoners is shocking. To be able to trace it back to named sources is shaming. As a species, we don’t seem to be very good at thinking outside of boxes, do we? One person identifies an issue, names a solution, and the rest of us jump at it, presumably with sighs of relief. I wonder if we can seize this moment and make some positive changes, for once. Though it seems to need some of that drive to come from the top, and I don’t see too many of the big countries around the world being organized in that way. Thanks for the youtube link, I’m looking forward to settling down to watch this quietly.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Susan Scott says:

    As shehannemoore says: the devil is in the detail. Will DEFINITELY watch this Pam thank you … thanks for providing the link directly here, will probably watch it on TV downstairs..
    Blooming hell re that 13th Amendment –

    We can only hang our heads in shame at the harm we’ve or that’s been perpetrated on people of colour. But that is not all that we must do. There is so much that needs to and can be done in the name of reparation and our acknowledgment of our shame.

    Thanks Pam, sorry I’m late … BLTN xx 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ally Bean says:

    The inequities built into the system seem obvious once you take the time to look at the system. I knew of Nixon’s contribution to this problem but hadn’t thought about how Reagan + Clinton played into it. I’d like to see our country move on to a more, shall we say, moral and equitable application of the 13th Amendment, but question what it’ll take for us to get there.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Linda Schaub says:

    Thanks for the tip Pam. I unfortunately don’t have Netflix or any streaming service right now as I cancelled my cable in 2010 and have an old type of TV. I look forward to retirement when maybe I will get Netflix or resume cable and catch up on all the shows and TV I missed. I did recently get Amazon Prime and one of the reasons was the ability to see some movies that I have missed as well as a few TV shows. I’ll try that out and see how that works out. Hard for this leopard to change her spots.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. hilarymb says:

    Hi Pam – thanks for the nods to this film … and I see I can watch it here – not sure I will … but can get back to it sometime. I’ve noted and would like to watch … and definitely will do at some stage. Take care and stay safe – also here’s to a peaceful time and year ahead – Hilary

    Liked by 1 person

  8. TanGental says:

    Well i knew your national obsession with sticking people in prison for ludicrous periods was off the scale, making our own crap system look amateurish by comparison but the stats by race are appalling – though again we in Britain aren’t in any position to throw stones. BLM has really resonated here too and about time. So much goes beneath the radar that I hope this can stay front and centre and the moral campaign not be distracted by statutary defenestrations, taking the knee or other symbols of virtue which while understandable perhaps, can be excuses not to do anything

    Liked by 2 people

    • Pam Lazos says:

      Interesting, Geoff. I had no idea that Brits were in the same veritable boat. Yes, I believe you’re right in that we won’t get out of this mess until the full light of day is shining on some of these issues, although in our current administration, I doubt much of anything will happen to improve the landscape.


  9. Resa says:

    Wonderful post, Pam!
    Happy Fourth Of July!
    I am Canadian, and will watch it! We have these issues, too, in our way.
    I’ve got a huge viewing list right now, as I am a voting member of the ATAS and it is Emmy nominating season. Nonetheless, I will get there!
    Thank you or this!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Didn’t know about this film. We have Netflix and will watch it. Thanks for the info. Enjoy the holiday weekend.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Powerful stuff, Sister. The devil is always in the detail when it comes to words.

    Liked by 2 people

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