13th (2016) Movie Review

The 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States abolished slavery, effectively guaranteeing every American citizen be free. That is to say, every citizen who is not a criminal.


Ava DuVernay’s historical documentary makes pertinent use of this word. With every mention of the word out of interviewees’ mouths, the term “CRIMINAL” flashes on the screen. And with each instance, the word seems to become more meaningless, an empty signifier not necessarily indicative of its dictionary definition.

During the introduction of 13th, it is not hard to wonder, after the camera cuts away from an interview, “Is that true?” Did The Birth of a Nation resurrect the Ku Klux Klan, or were they never dead in the first place? Was it a conscious institutional decision from the beginning to prolong slavery through the criminalization loophole?

The hard facts are accurate—the boom of mass incarceration incited by Nixonian democracy. But this thesis statement of exploitation via the 13th Amendment is an assumed conclusion more than it is a proved one.

Truth in documentary is an important thing to note here—mainly the point that it does not objectively exist. Documentary is influenced by artistic framing, what is revealed and concealed and when, as dictated by a creative force who has no obligation to suppress their opinions.

This said, 13th is by no means unimportant. The factual basis for institutional racism is something that should not be ignored, and once the film begins in earnest it acts as a crash course on American criminology.

DuVernay’s lens unpacks the history in sometimes enlightening ways. A congressman from the Reagan era describes the inception of the War on Drugs as a prevention campaign, which of course was not what the effort became. The framing of the moment as a face-value good idea executed poorly is a nuanced narrative that is often ignored in retroactive discussions of the War on Drugs.

13th reminds audiences what is sometimes forgotten about mass incarceration. The most obvious is the hard numbers, presented on screen throughout the film as the film surveys the history of the prison system in America.

Then there is the political power of a “tough on crime” stance. It crippled Michael Dukakis, and Bill Clinton did not make the same mistake of being lean on crime. The problem may have been introduced by Republican Presidents Nixon and Reagan, but it has been perpetuated across the aisle. In a government essentially defined by its partisanship, it is shocking that one of the few things that cross the aisle involve mass incarceration and mandatory minimums.

As much as DuVernay’s film accomplishes in 100 minutes, it is impossible to truly understand 40+ years of U.S. political history in that time. The surface issue is broached with facts and historical instances, but the real history is substantially complex. An entire film could have been made on ALEC bills and their influence on legislation.

13th is an ambitious introductory course on U.S. incarceration. But education should not end with DuVernay’s skilled but over-packed take. The book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, herself an interviewee in DuVernay’s doc, is a good next step. Or a criminology textbook if you can stomach the dryness.


13th: B+


As always, thanks for reading!

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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)


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