13TH: Contextualizing A Movement

Ava DuVernay returns to the documentary format with 13th, a look at the amendment of the United States Constitution that simultaneously abolished slavery and established a loophole for denying rights to targeted groups. The troubling wording in the amendment has to do with convicted criminals, who are the only people exempt from the abolishment of slavery and involuntary servitude.

That exemption, while small at the time, has snowballed into a huge issue thanks to America’s system of mass incarceration. It’s no secret that the U.S. imprisons more people than any other country in the world and that the people incarcerated are disproportionately the poor and people of color. These stats have been thrown around for decades, and yet efforts to reform the system are still in their infancy.

Why change hasn’t occurred is linked to a past many Americans don’t want to confront, and our narrow conversations about the issue leaves much in the dark. That’s where DuVernay steps in, providing a comprehensive and wide-eyed look at the complications we aren’t discussing.

A Series Of Dreadful Events

Covering how the 13th amendment has been interpreted and used involves going over a massive amount of historical and cultural information, much of which will be familiar to informed viewers. The strength of 13th isn’t in making new arguments, but in linking all of this information together into a streamlined series of events.

13TH: Contextualizing A Movement
source: Netflix

The documentary is broken up into chronological sections beginning in post-Civil War South and moving to present day. Strikingly framed talking heads and historical footage show how each period in American history melded into the next, so that while change was constantly occurring, the mistakes or failures at each phase built to what we see today.

The broad similarities between slavery and the criminal justice system is something that’s often pointed out by activists. The problem is that speeches are limited by time. They can’t possibly cover the all of the material that DuVernay can in 13th, and their brevity often leaves their points feeling more metaphorical than historical.

What DuVernay has done is lay out exactly how historical that connection is through a maddening timeline with grave implications for our future. It’s a pointed argument against those who dismiss groups like Black Lives Matter as a blip in the country’s trajectory, placing it firmly in a storyline that every American should be ashamed to be a part of.

Keeping Us Together

The weight of all this failure is not something anyone wants to shoulder, which makes discussing responsibility like a field of landmines waiting to shatter the movement for racial equality. If you start picking on any one group, then they shut down and refuse to participate. If you ignore it entirely, then you run the risk of not holding people accountable for changing their ways.

Responsibility must be called out, and DuVernay moves through this requirement with such clear purpose that it rarely comes off as an alienating attack. The talking heads she’s recruited are representative of different races, backgrounds, and political beliefs. By having all of them condemn and in some cases take personal responsibility for the course of history, the film avoids falling into a divisive quagmire.

13TH: Contextualizing A Movement
source: Netflix

That’s not to say that individuals aren’t singled out, particularly when it comes to the candidates currently running for President of the United States. Both Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump are held accountable for their policies and rhetoric, and while DuVernay doesn’t pretend that their sins are equal, she never stoops to cheap shots.

Any time an individual person, group, or piece of legislation is brought up in 13th, the reason for criticism is made the focus. By keeping the arguments levelheaded and not going on the attack, the film avoids an aggressive tone that would scare off certain audience members. After all, change can’t happen unless everyone gets on board, which makes avoiding division a necessary element that DuVernay skillfully navigates.

Revitalizing A Movement

While the breadth of information 13th covers is large, it’s targeted for a very specific message. DuVernay’s concern is the modern discourse on the U.S. criminal justice system’s treatment of black Americans, not the failings of the system as a whole. She does throw in several mentions of Hispanic people, but it’s important to note that the scope of this film is narrow.

Aspects of the horrendously detrimental war on drugs is left out, including the methamphetamine epidemic that largely effects rural, white Americans. Its exclusion is understandable given that it’s barely related to the narrative she’s telling, but not everything that she includes or excludes is so clear cut.

13TH: Contextualizing A Movement
source: Netflix

As the film’s timeline hits present day, it begins to bounce around between criticisms of the current prison system and the legislation that affects it, and it takes some time for it all of these points to be clearly connected. In abandoning the chronological structure that had previously been so effective, the film loses a bit of moment and power, but it gains a larger perspective.

By the end, DuVernay reveals that she isn’t simply providing a background to the movement, but filling out arguments that normally are only touched upon. As groups like Black Lives Matter have become more prominent, they have also become more politicized, and on America’s increasingly contentious national stage, nuanced arguments are not given the time to be made. In many ways, the conversation about racial inequality has become strangled, and 13th has come in to open it back up.


One thing that becomes clear when taking in 13th is how rarely Americans discuss racial issues and then attempt to meaningfully change them. The country has hit a boiling point, and the conversation has already started. The task now is to use this moment to take steps forward.

DuVernay has made a film that puts this opportunity into clear focus, allowing everyone to see that our actions in the coming months and years can either lead to significant change or disappointing stagnation. It’s a forceful prod towards the former, and one that should leave very few unmoved.

Do you think education will be enough to propel racial equality forward? If not, what else needs to happen?

13th is currently available in theaters and on Netflix in the U.S. and the U.K. 

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