13th (2016)

  • Time: 100 min
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Director: Ava DuVernay
  • Cast: Michelle Alexander, Cory Booker, Jelani Cobb


An in-depth look at the prison system in the United States and how it reveals the nation’s history of racial inequality.

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  • (RATING: ☆☆☆☆½ out of 5)


    IN BRIEF: A thought-provoking film that demands prison reform.

    GRADE: B+

    SYNOPSIS: A documentary that questions race and our corrupt system of justice.

    JIM’S REVIEW: CRIMINAL…that’s the main word that is projected non-stop throughout Ava DuVernay’s documentary, 13th. The film focuses on a strange loophole in our 13th Amendment that abolished slavery, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”. That cautionary clause helps to make an interesting theory of contention as this film tries to link its political fallout which may have contributed to the recent widespread incarceration of many African-African men in America as a legitimized form of slavery. Slave labor disguised as prison labor becomes the American Way. (This film is currently streaming on Netflex and in theaters in select cities.)

    Ms. DuVernay begins her cinematic indictment of the criminal justice system with President Obama’s statement about today’s prisons and the ongoing arrests of many black men. This lays the groundwork to make her case about the savage treatment of one race by another. In essence, she shows a time-capsule history lesson that encapsulates the political changes that impact and justify our nation’s prejudices.

    With powerful archival footage and photographs going back to early views of Negroes and their third class treatment after the so-called end of slavery in the mid-1800’s, the director delves into the issue of slavery, first with clips from Birth of a Nation and its pro-KKK stance and scenes of racial hatred against many African-Americans. She then addresses segregation and Jim Crow in the 40’s and 50’s eras, which led to civil unrest and protests, and finally, the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Granted, there is too much material on view to capture the social turmoil of a nation, but she has a strong grasp of events.

    Along with Ms. DuVernay, we saw hope for a united country dwindled as the call for law and order in the 70’s became Richard Nixon’s platform, built on hate, distrust, and fear (sounding eerily familiar nowadays as well) and going into the 80’s with Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs and his trickle-down economics that caused an upswing of poverty in our country. These policies created an all-out attack to communities of color. In 1994 leading to the 2000’s, beginning with Bill Clinton’s era, the director hones in on a federal crime bill that introduced the “three strikes” rule for felons, those arrested on lesser crimes, getting mandatory prison sentences for minor infractions. (This domino effect has increased the prison population by one million more prisoners in the next ten years, Nearly 900,000 were African-American convicts as the prison population grew into the millennium and remains mostly black today.) All of this history is skillfully assembled and very well edited by Spencer Averick in this provocative documentary about mass incarceration.

    Graphically, black and white animation and bold block letters reinforce her message on the war on crime, as she uses rap music, yesterday’s headlines, television footage, and endless interviews by politicians, former presidents, professors, pundits, and community activists to add gravitas to her film. She even delves into past campaign ads that were based on ignorance and sensationalized statements against a minority or anyone who supported a black cause. (Disturbing footage by both presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump making racial slurs, is also included. The masterful cuts depicts images of violence and loathsome words from Mr. Trump and his avid supporters at his rallies and mixes these “God-fearing Americans” with actual footage of 60’s Civil Rights protestors being pummeled and shoved. This segment becomes the most powerful and controversial part of this film.)

    Yes, with all its good intentions, 13th gets too self-righteous and tries to cover too much territory to prove this case of social injustice. The view becomes slightly imbalanced and relies a bit too heavily on the African-American speakers spouting pride and outrage. Yet this is an accomplished film, unafraid to sidestep political issues, even as it detours into the deadly shooting of Treyvon Martin, undocumented immigration, the Black Lives Matter movement, and police brutality. The film gets caught up in its own rhetoric and loses its way from the central issue of prison incarceration. Nevertheless, the film makes its arguments very persuasively.

    While it does take a non-partisan look, blaming both Democratic and Republican parties and asking for new laws to revamp the prison injustice, it still overstates its message.  It questions everything, from the legislative and judicial branches of government to social and economic strife in African American (and Latino) neighborhood, but never places any blame on the individuals who commit the crimes. Their actions are never held accountable, but everyone else’s action are.

    Ava DuVernay’s 13th is a sobering awakening of an important issue in need of reform. The body count of prisoners continues to rise…CRIMINAL, indeed. See this film.

    ANY COMMENTS: Please contact me at: jadepietro@rcn.com

    Visit my blog at: http://www.dearmoviegoer.com

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