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Ava DuVernay’s 13th (2016); And America’s Prison Problem

November 7, 2016

the13th_27x40_1sheetThroughout our teaching of American history, it seems Americans have been taught to regard the constitutional amendment as if it’s an infallible document perfect in every way. We often fail to contextualize the time period in which the amendments were ratified, just as often as we disregard that those who signed the amendments into laws resided comfortably in upper elite classes far above the average citizen. There is a stubborn resistance against conversations about improving laws in America, reiterating our unwillingness to reexamine anything the forefathers of this country established—despite knowing the damage these laws and rules have on certain parts of our society. Ava DuVernay unpacks how the 13th amendment has done very little to actually free African Americans from slavery due to its wiry, diluted language that only promises to keep enslavement thriving under the guise of punishment for a convicted crime.

13th highlights decisions made and rhetoric used in the presidencies of two of many despicable men who’ve run this country throughout the centuries. Through a glaring lens focusing on how Richard Nixon and Ronald Regan enacted laws that continue to influence unchecked fears and biased racism among the American people. DuVernay lets recorded audio and television clips roll revealing the true intent of these men during their time of power. It’s a truly chilling moment to hear Lee Atwater, consultant and strategist of Regan and George H. W. Bush, explain his strategy for Republicans gaining southern votes: “You start out in 1954 by saying nigger, nigger, nigger. By 1968 you can’t say nigger. That hurts, there’s a backlash, so you say stuff like “forced busing”, “states’ rights” and all that stuff. And you’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all of these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it.”


Likewise, 13th’s clever use of focusing on media gives an amplifier to voices often silenced behind bars, like the teenaged Rikers island detainee, Kalif Browder, whose lack of conviction didn’t stop officials from locking him away for three years over a false accusation of stealing a book bag. 13th also revisits memories often spread throughout various documentaries like the wise words Angela Davis during her tenure in prison and immortal words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. DuVernay allows her hosts of experts and societal figures to lay out the chilling statistics that explain how and why America has stayed in a place of perpetual injustice and conservative stalemating that has left more people enslaved in prisons today than were enslaved in 1850.

I initially felt apprehensive about watching 13th due to the mediocre ratings it generated across the board from users. I knew Ava DuVernay behind such a product had to be fascinating, but felt reluctant in part because of a 6.8 rating on IMDB and barely average rating on Netflix. I am almost stunned with confusion as to why after finishing the film, although I’m sure race played a large part in it as most ratings for primarily Black films or shows tend to have lower ratings from users.

DuVernay is not the best at welding a documentary as she is with fictional narrative. But her intentions shine through. The usual talking head trope gets spiced up by heavily cropped angles and off-center framing. The camera often picks up a speaker from a side profiled shot then moves around with an almost impatient reaction. Music busts up heavy dialogue with lyrics coming to life on the screen to punctuate the power of the prose delivered in these songs. These seem like great decisions on the surface, and sometimes throughout the film they work. But mostly it comes off clunky and amateurish. Documentaries are one of the few genres that revel in using standard tropes. Nevertheless, DuVernay reminds us that it’s the meat of the story that matters not how it’s presented, and the meat of 13th is pungent, tough and hard to swallow but needed to satiate this country’s ever growing hunger for racial justice.


13th is gut busting and crushing which is why everyone need to see its images and hears its words. To turn away from what is shown in this film or to tune out the stories told is a disservice and complete belittling of those whose broken bodies and bloodied faces are crystallized within these images. This is the film that people who believe racism no longer exists needs to watch. This is a film that needs to be seen by those who question why others get queasy at Donald Trump’s calls to make America “great again.” Lyndon B. Johnson echoed these sentiments telling Americans sitting in their homes to put away “silly differences” and make America whole—a statement that translates to “stop this reckless abandonment of law and go back to being docile and complacent.” Nixon’s rhetoric of law and order mirrors that of Trump’s another frightening realization captured in 13th. Nixon’s hard laced thoughts on drugs and who used them is almost verbatim words that Trump has shouted. So when Nixon’s own adviser admitted the drug lingo was about “black people and the anti-war hippies” you must see why minorities and our allies accuse Trump supporters of being racist.

What this movie can’t do in its 100 minutes is trace the history of Black lives that have been where we are right now and how our paths have been paved in sweat, blood and vital breath to get us out of the bubble we are trapped in. An arresting montage in the film condenses video images of murdered black men over the past few years (Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile etc,). The image freezes on a bloodied body before shifting to a piece of blacked out paper. Each black strip is a name, age and method of death. This page is obviously longer than we can see, and it serves as a counter for the countless bodies killed. Currently, the federal government does not keep tabs on the deaths of citizens by police although they calculate the number of people killed by shark attacks or the number of pigs on farms throughout the United States. The online death trackers are the results of independent reporters keeping up with these number as best they can in rudimentary ways. Similarly, in 1893, it took a young Black woman, journalist Ida B. Wells, to print The Red Report, an official document listing the  deaths of Black citizens by lynching across the country.


13th creates a need for accountability and a call for regulation on a horribly unjust system that has evolved before our eyes. It juxtaposes images of the past with words of the present to show how little to nothing has truly changed in the scale of justice. It condenses the exhausting numbers and statistics that cement how racial inequality became an ideology ignored by those in power to fix it. We must stop treating our amendments and constitution as if they are infallible. These laws were enacted with the promise of justice for all. But as time has shown, justice is only for some and when are laws are obviously broken, it’s due time we fix them now.

SEE IT. And contribute to the solution, not the problem. 

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