I know it can be a hard sell to get people to watch documentaries, but if you watch only one documentary in your life, it should be this one. 13th can be seen on Netflix. I’ve had the good fortune to see it twice. Once on my own, and once as a part of my Race and Social Justice Initiative training at work. Each time, it brough out a storm of emotions within me.
This movie discusses a very shocking loophole in the 13th amendment to the US constitution. The amendment reads as follows (italics mine):
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.
We’d like to think we’ve abolished slavery in this country, but that’s not at all true, as this movie makes blatantly obvious. Once “official” slavery was abolished, this country had a big, sucking vacuum where all that free labor used to exist. The solution to that problem became obvious rather quickly. After emancipation, convictions for petty crimes began to rise, and they’ve been rising steadily ever since. As it stands, America has 5% of the world’s population, and 25% of the world’s prisoners. There are 2.3 million Americans in prison today, and the majority of them are African American. And oh, are we ever good at putting them to work.
We’ve criminalized drug addiction. We’ve waged war on crime. Politicians began to talk about “getting tough” and “law and order” as a backlash against the civil rights movement. We’ve had harsher sentencing for crack than we do for cocaine, and these drugs are divided along racial and economic lines. We’ve called these people super predators and beasts. They are considered enemy combatants that we should be able to stop and frisk with impunity.
We’ve perpetuated the myth that black men are rapists. Something we rarely think about is that the history of interracial rape is far more white male/black female. Which makes a creepy amount of sense, given the unequal power dynamic.
We created a three strike policy in this country that requires mandatory minimum sentencing. This means that judges can’t dispense justice with any type of discretion. For example, if someone had been convicted of two petty crimes as a brash young teenager, and then lives an upstanding, crime free life for another forty years, and is then talked into plea bargaining for a crime he didn’t commit to avoid this mandatory minimum situation, that person will practically be thrown under the jail, as the saying goes. 97% of those locked up have plea bargained for that very reason. Which means they aren’t really getting any justice at all.
Even former President Clinton now admits that his Omnibus Crime Bill was a mistake. It has militarized our police departments, and funded a lot of prisons which then needed to be filled to remain profitable. It has doubled the prison population.
This has decimated the African American community. Black men have a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison, whereas for white men, the statistics are 1 in 17. It has left a whole generation of leaders incarcerated. African Americans comprise 6.5% of the US population, but 40.2% of the prison population. This makes it difficult for the black community to defend itself.
And have you ever thought about the injustice of the Stand Your Ground laws in some states? Stand your ground allowed George Zimmerman to hunt down and kill Trayvon Martin. Where was Trayvon Martin’s right to stand his ground?
And then, you have to think about all the convicts who pay their debt to society and never have their rights fully restored. It can be nearly impossible to find a job when you get out of prison. And 30% of the black male population in Alabama has lost its ability to vote. Is that democracy? Really?
Two other issues that this movie discusses in depth are ALEC (the American Legislation Exchange Council), and Prison Labor. Those issues are so intense that they’ll each have a blog post of their own.
The frustrating thing about the modern day slavery in this country is that I feel personally helpless to do anything about it. And if I’m honest, most of the time I get to not think about it. I can sit in my white privilege comfort zone and focus on other things, like my next vacation or the fact that my dog wants to go for a walk. It’s a big source of shame for me.
The very least I can do is blog about this issue in an effort to signal boost the voices of the less privileged. So here I am, doing the very least I can do. But it sure doesn’t make me feel any better.
In keeping with my distressing habit of doing the doggy-paddle several years behind any and all pop culture waves, I present you with my latest discovery: the comedy special Nanette, by Hannah Gadsby. It’s from 2017. You’ll find it on Netflix, because they released it in 2018.
In my own defense, it only just received a Creative Arts Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special last month. That’s how I managed to hear any buzz at all about it. And I’m so grateful that I did. I have this interview on PRI’s Studio 360 to thank for that.
Before this, I’d never heard of the Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby. Having seen Nanette, I feel as though calling her a comedian is a bit too simplistic. And if all you’re looking for is a few easy laughs, you might want to look elsewhere.
No. This show makes you think. It makes you laugh. It makes you squirm. It makes you cry. It makes you see the world differently. It has substance and value. If you see no other show, see this one.
The special starts off funny enough. She’s hilarious, actually. And this humor is her way of introducing herself to you. So you’ll listen. So you’ll take note.
But about half way through, the show takes a rather intense turn. It becomes a confession about who she is and how she feels about herself, and why we all should realize how important that is. And then it turns into an education. It demonstrates exactly what it’s like to be inside her skin.
So I leave you with a few quickly written quotes that I jotted down while watching the show for the second time. Out of context, entirely. You should watch the show. But these things should make you blink, at the very least.
This first one made me cheer, because I relate to it so much.
“All my life I’ve been told, ‘Don’t be so sensitive!’ Why is insensitivity something to strive for?”
“You learn from the part of the story you focus on.”
She states that Pablo Picasso had an affair with a 17 year old girl, and suffered from the mental illness of misogyny. And that misogyny should be considered a mental illness because you hate the thing you desire. She also said that Pablo Picasso said, “Each time I leave a woman I should burn her. Destroy the woman and you destroy the past she represents.”
She then goes on a very fascinating rant about art history, and all the unnecessary nude paintings of women, and said that high art turns women into “flesh vases for your dick flowers.” (Harsh, I know. You have to see the special to really get it. But once you do, you can’t forget it.)
She also says, “If I am the only woman in the room, I’m afraid,” and went on to say if you don’t understand that, you aren’t talking to the women in your life. Amen, sister.
But by far the best quote of all from this show is “There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.”
What a fantastic show. What a profound show. Watch it, then tell me what you think.
You young folks have no idea what you’re missing. A trip to Blockbuster Video was always exciting. You’d walk down the aisles of VHS tapes with your date, and the night felt rife with possibilities. You’d lightheartedly argue about which genre you would choose. Action? Science Fiction? Comedy? Romance? Such choices could mean the difference between relationship failures and successes.
Then, once you’d decided on your genre, you’d have maybe a hundred videos to choose from. Wow! Such variety! First to be eliminated were the ones one of you had already seen and weren’t willing to see again. Then you’d pick up boxes and read the backs, hoping for one that would appeal to you both. Sometimes you’d come away with 3 or 4. And then you’d spot the new releases and grab one of those instead. (“Quick, before someone else grabs it!”) New releases were highly sought after. It was fun to be on society’s cutting edge.
When you’d go to the counter to rent your choices, you’d be faced with polite signs that said, “Be kind. Please rewind.” And you’d have to run the gauntlet of microwave popcorn and raisinettes. Then you’d be told when your selections would be due back.
I get it. In the age of Netflix, this all seems like a monumental hassle. But it was a novelty, back then. An entertainment adventure. It was a thing. It really was.
I even applied for a job there, once. You had to provide your own light blue oxford shirt, khaki pants, and brown shoes and belt. And after you filled out your application, you had to take this really weird personality test, full of yes or no statements. The only question I remember is, “I love the Three Stooges. Yes/No.” I wasn’t hired, so maybe I got that one wrong. But I will forever wonder what that answer was supposed to indicate about me.
I also, at one time, seriously considered getting a job at Blockbuster corporate headquarters in Mexico City. Finally, I’d actually be using my college degree in Spanish. But no. I can’t remember if I didn’t follow through or if I didn’t get hired.
Either way, it’s a good thing, because back then there were 9,000 stores worldwide, and Blockbuster seemed like a winning star on which to hook one’s wagon. Now, the very last Blockbuster is in Bend, Oregon.
So you’ll probably never know what you were missing, young’un. Yours is a cold, lonely, digital world.
One of my favorite things about going to school on Mondays (my only favorite thing, come to think of it) was being able to talk to my friends about the shows that we all watched over the weekend. With only 3 major channels to choose from, it was fairly safe to say that we had a great deal in common when it came to our TV viewing.
I bet kids today don’t have that experience. With so many cable packages to choose from, along with Hulu and Netflix and God only knows what else, no one watches anything at the same time anymore, and none of us occupy the same TV landscape.
For example, I don’t get cable, and can only afford one subscription, so currently it’s Hulu, because I absolutely HAD TO see The Handmaid’s Tale. I seem to hang around Netflix and cable people, so our conversations regarding the good ol’ idiot box are limited. Yeah, I’d love to check out the Hunger Games, Game of Thrones, or House of Cards (at least prior to the sex scandal), but it’s not within my reach.
So how do kids connect anymore? They sure don’t seem to do anything in the sunshine. Do they even do the same things, or is it every person for him or herself? Do TV characters still feel like parts of their families? I miss talking about what happened on Cheers and the Cosby Show (again, prior to sex scandal), and Hill Street Blues and WKRP and MASH and…oh, you name it. I do believe that variety is good, but I think that kids today have lost a lot because they have a bit too much of it.
Come to think of it, if someone shot JR nowadays, there’d be no anticipation about talking about it at school the next day. It would be all over Facebook even as it happened. So much for the sweet, sweet taste of delayed gratification.
I was just the right age to be tortured by the Watergate hearings. I was 8 years old in 1973 and those hearings pre-empted daytime television for weeks. At that age, it felt like years. I had no idea that a gripping piece of political history was unfolding before my eyes. I thought I would lose my mind, since television was one of my primary forms of after school entertainment back then. I remember wailing, “I’m bored!!!” to my mother, and she’d reply wearily, “Read a book.” Usually I’d just sit on my swing and cry. I was such a brat.
I have no idea where I got the idea that I should be entertained at all times. It’s insane, when you think about it. Saying you’re bored is like saying you are entitled to constant pleasure. I don’t know anyone who enjoys that level of privilege. Even the super-rich have to suffer through board meetings and long flights to Australia. Boredom visits us all.
I suspect that Generation Z will have an even harder time coping with boredom, because they have so many different ways to avoid it. If they’re treated to presidential investigations (fingers crossed, here), well, there’s always Netflix. I would have killed to binge watch something, anything, I Love Lucy, whatever, back in 1973.
Nowadays I’m kind of grateful for boredom. Please, God, give me a routine, predictable day with no surprises. Because the older you get, the more you experience those moments of “un-boredom” that are exciting little tastes of hell. The death of loved ones. Waiting for medical test results. Those times when your kid drops off the radar. Political shenanigans. Work SNAFUs. That strange noise in the back yard when you’re home alone.
You’re not bored at those moments, believe you me! Not even a little bit! That’s when you realize that boredom is actually a luxury.
So boredom can visit me any time it wants. I’m always grateful for an excuse to take a nap. And yeah, okay, my mother was right. You can never read too many books.