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  • Writer's pictureAlaina Booth

Modern Slavery: A Film Review and a Thought Dump from a Privileged White Girl


Directed by Ava DuVernay

“To ignore the historical context means that you can’t have an informed debate about the current state of blacks and police today, because this didn’t just appear out of nowhere.”

This quote is why I chose to watch this film today. To inform, educate, and understand the history of what is continuing to happen right here in the “Land of the Free.” This film opened my eyes, my ears, and my heart to recognize the systemic racism that rampages throughout our government that prioritizes corporations over people, power over humanity, and corruption over justice. Beyond government, it’s time for white people to wake up, confront their privilege anduse itto change these systems that put a portion of the population in a constant state of oppression.

The thirteenth amendment of the Constitution states that slavery and involuntary servitude shall not exist… unless you were convicted of a crime. CRIMINALS are treated as less than human, much like slaves. With liberties stripped, serving your time is not where your punishment ends. The likelihood of success once you leave prison is so low that you’re bound to end up right back into the situations that put you in the slammer in the first place.

But what defines a CRIMINAL? A CRIMINAL, which the documentary stylistically shows in large block letters every time it is mentioned, may as well be defined as someone with black skin.

Black males make up 6.5% of the US population, whereas they make up 42% of the country’s prison population. And the history of prison expansion, the war on drugs, and benefitting the corporations that serve these prisons, history illustrates one thing – slavery never really left. It just has a new name: mass incarceration. Slavery was an integral part of the South’s economy, and 13thaccurately argues that free labor simply morphs into new iterations of itself.

In the film, crack cocaine is the clearest example of the discrimination that sends blacks to prison. Crack is a cheaper, smokable version of cocaine, heavily used in urban, mostly black communities, whereas cocaine was expensive and prestigious. Crack and cocaine were inherently the same drug, but with insanely different consequences when it came to sentencing. This policy, and other policies of the same stature, were designed to oppress and imprison black people. Even if they weren’t imprisoned or using drugs, black people were continually turned away from home loans, decent jobs, and although recognized as 5/5 of a person, have had no choice but to root themselves in their societal position as second class citizens since the Jim Crow era.

It is incredibly upsetting to see the justice system hold some overly accountable – like the girl that was sentenced to life in prison for transporting cocaine – and let others off the hook – like the police officers that wrongly killed Breonna Taylor. The CRIMINAL justice system and the current actions of our police only increase our country’s power epidemic. Those who are in power, don’t want to give it up. They continuously oppress to ensure that those who have no power remain that way. Donald Trump only encourages this power epidemic, and he serves as confirmation bias for racist Americans.

The film calls on another form of confirmation bias – the media. The media continually paints black males in poor light, showing the American public that black people are dangerous, animalistic beings and painting them as rapists and CRIMINALS. The Birth of a Nationwas so successful as a motion picture because it made white people feel comfortable – it helped quell white guilt over the civil war by reinforcing the narrative that black people are less than human. This film demonstrates the power that mass media has over societal influence, and the same narratives have not died out. It’s so interesting to hear adults’ concern when I tell them I will be going to protest for today’s BLM movement and they immediately assume I will be involved with looting! It’s, “The killing of an innocent black man is unfortunate, but the looting and violence has to stop” rather than “The looting and violence is unfortunate, but the murder of an innocent black man has to stop.” The media continues to paint this picture that black people are wild animals, and white people continue to vouch for their comfort, without recognizing that the violent actions taking place are simply a symptom of the real issue – SYSTEMIC RACISM. If any white person is unwilling to recognize the systemic racism that encapsulates our society, then THEY are part of the problem. If white people think that they have a place to tell people of color how it feels to be black, or justify their silence because the situation makes them uncomfortable, I suggest that they take into account how it feels to be a black person in America every single day.

“Each moment in history is a fleeting time, precious and unique. But some stand out as moments of beginning, in which courses are set to shape decades or centuries.” – a quote from Richard Nixon, from this film.

I feel incredibly grateful and empowered to be a part of this little moment in history, and I will refuse to let this time be remembered by my neutrality or my silence. This past Tuesday I participated in a small protest in Roswell, GA – and it touched me in ways that any other learning opportunities have not. I learn by doing and experiencing, and this is difficult – as I will NEVER be able to understand how it feels to be black. Although I have been putting in the work behind the scenes watching films like 13th, listening to black stories, and educating myself on the history of this issue, understanding comes from experience. Lying on the grass, with our hands tied behind our backs for 8 minutes and 46 seconds was a moment I won’t forget. I felt powerless, as cars drove by the hundreds of us lying in the grass. Anyone from any one of those cars could have hurt us, and doing this action helped me to understand how George Floyd must have felt. Except George didn’t get to stand back up and continue using his voice. His life was ended in that powerless position. And doing this opened up my eyes – coming together with people to support this cause in a time where it’s incredibly important to choose a side is something I want to look back and remember. This summer feels starkly different than any other summers I have ever experienced. But I am learning to embrace how uncomfortable these past 3 months have been. Events and situations like this are undoubtedly giving me a lesson in empathy and understanding.

13th’s thesis is to show viewers that these modes of oppression are nothing new, and it will continue to happen until we come together to fight for systematic change. I cannot wait to hear about the outcomes of this year, and I cannot wait to hear about the outcomes of the efforts of millions of people coming together. Although we each have such a small voice, collectively, we start movements that people can’t ignore. “You have to shock people into paying attention” is an unfortunate truth. Since we are emerging from a global pandemic, we have the time and resources to put behind this movement. We have more time to learn, more time to show up, more ability to focus less on the rat race of our own lives to learn about the experiences of those around us.We can finally put numbers behind this movement that has been fighting for years, and those numbers are the shock factor that has allowed this to gain the attention it has. Regarding the process of learning and unlearning, this film is a great place to start. Although this film is uncomfortable at times, my personal comfort is the last thing I am concerned with while others are putting their lives on the line for justice. I encourage everyone reading this during this “moment of beginning” to reflect on the same.

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