Ava DuVernay’s “13th” Explained

Directed by Ava DuVernay, 13th is a documentary that explores the thirteenth amendment of the constitution. This 1965 amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime. DuVernay’s film examines how Black US citizens are still discriminated against through mass incarceration. Garnering many positive reviews by film critics, 13th received high praise, even earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Feature Documentary in 2017.  

Released in October 2016, 13th was made available in select theatres and on Netflix. Though I believe it is most suitable for adults, I also think everyone, no matter their age, race, gender, etc., should take the time to watch this documentary. The institutionalized racism within our justice system and the criminalization of Black Americans is a problem within our country that many do not pay enough attention to because it does not directly affect them. However, the severity of the problem is too great to ignore. In a Colorlines interview, DuVernay stated, “I intend for everyone to see it. That’s why Netflix was so important: There’s a cinema segregation in this country where you can’t access certain theaters with certain films if you live in certain places.”

13th opens with statistics showing that the US has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Moving chronologically, the documentary highlights systems of oppression that have been put in place throughout the years post-slavery. From Jim Crow laws, to Nixon’s War on Drugs, to Clinton’s three-strikes-you’re-out legislation, 13th covers a wide array of what created the racial disparities we still see in America today. Such broad topics are represented through photographs, video footage, animated clips, quotes, statistics, and more. Interviews and input from notable figures, scholars, and activists, both liberal and conservative, such as Angela Davis, Henry Louis Gates Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, and Grover Norquist are scattered throughout to help provide insight and further background information.  

DuVernay’s documentary places value on the Black American experience. This comes as no surprise, as she has also directed Middle of Nowhere, a movie about a Black nurse in Compton struggling to understand her husband’s prison sentence, and Selma, a movie focused on the Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches led by Martin Luther King Jr. and others in 1956. For so long, Hollywood has told countless white stories about white characters from white perspectives. DuVernay’s work shows that there are other valuable, rich, and unique stories to be told, especially those from people of color. These stories have gone unheard for so long; displaying them through filmmaking is almost revolutionary.

13th is raw and troubling, but it is true, and it is our reality.  

In terms of the messages 13th conveys, the audience sees the unfair way that white America has dealt with the Black American community all throughout history. A mirror is held up to the audience: see how such discrimination that was happening decades ago is still occurring? Despite what forms it may come in, racism is still racism. After slavery was abolished, Black Americans were still being targeted, and many were arrested for as little as loitering. They were put in jail and essentially made slaves again.  

Later, Black Americans were targeted during the war against drugs in the mid-1980sCrack was a largely inner-city drug while cocaine saw popularity in the suburbs. However, despite the similarities between the two, punishments for possession were far more severe. One ounce of crack cocaine had the same amount of time in prison as 100 ounces of powder cocaine. In the film, Shaka Senghor is recorded saying if you’re a person of color with crack you basically go to prison for life, yet, if you’re white, you merely get a slap on the wrist. 

This ties in with the intersection of race and class. In America, we have a justice system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. Many in prison are still unnecessarily incarcerated as they do not have the financial means to pay for their freedom. Not only does the upperclass benefit from this system, but they often also have the means to belittle their criminal activity in comparison. The media unfairly uses Black men as their model criminal. This plays into bias in policing and is often the cause of police brutality. 

This documentary certainly empowers the Black American community. With a Black woman creating a film on how Black Americans are historically discriminated against, DuVernay is creating an authentic and real narrative. The public is able to see a story so often kept quiet by giving Black Americans, especially incarcerated Black Americans, a platform to have their voices heard. DuVernay is empowering and giving them this voice. The addition of real numbers and hard statistics also helps shed light on how many individuals have been and currently are in prison. These are people who also do not typically have a way of speaking for themselves, so bringing attention to them in this documentary helps raise awareness.  

Though the film never explicitly touches on it, 13th was released during an extremely tumultuous moment in American history. With Colin Kaepernick, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and Trump’s presidency, all eyes are focused on the rights and wrongs of the Black community. By setting the story and history to film documentation, DuVernay helps educate by giving context to understanding the modern world.  

Stream 13th on Netflix.