Ava Duvernay’s 13 th is commanding, unforgiving and chilling. It is clear after finishing watching the documentary that there remains an unsettling feeling of anguish. Ava DuVernay debut documentary feature appeared on Netflix and its title refers to the US constitution’s 13 th Amendment which abolished slavery as well as involuntary servitude. Though this was made to ban slavery in all of the American states, there was a catch; what the 13 th Amendment tried to ban could in turn be used as a punishment towards criminals. And this is what the documentary explores: how African Americans became typecast to be the villain America was to fear and erase. Leading them to disproportionately make up 37.8 per cent of US state prison. These facts correspond with the evolving climate of racism within the US as the current movement of Black Lives Matters has taken the forefront with confronting this issue. These grotesquely disturbing facts are explored, starting from post-Civil War to LBJ, Nixon and Clintons presidency revealing their shattering effects on the prison system, up until this current period. Exposing how racism is intertwined within the supposed justice system and how African Americans have become inseparable from stereotypes that have been branded upon then since the day of emancipation.
The timeline constantly haunts the screen, with the figures of black prison inmates rising at a rapid rate. The documentary features leading commentators on the US’s racial political climate but also makes sure to feature conservative figures who give their unabashed view on the prison system and its effects on the African American community. It was certainly amusing to hear Van Jones, the founder of Dream Corps, quip response to Grover Norquist’s injudicious comment that it was the Democrats who over sensationalised Willie Horton’s inflammatory coverage during the 1988 presidential campaign. Giving the documentary a sardonic tone as it doesn’t shy away from exposing even its own commentators eerily ironic opinions.
Are African Americans really free? This question is explored in this densely thrilling piece that encapsulates the essence of America’s enduring relationship with its most disenfranchised community. A community quickly made dispossessed then locked into prisons cells slashing family ties and being made serve the American economic system. DuVernay has created a deeply riveting piece and should be applauded for not shying away from including public figures who still hold favour in today’s age. Seeing as it is election season and bringing to surface Bill Clinton’s dubious ties with accelerating mass incarceration is hindering but also a refreshing approach to audiences who have not yet uncovered a president who once dubbed the “first black president”. The 13th is as much a revelatory piece as it is charged with probing questions, the brisk rate it runs at is also thrilling giving the documentary a cinematic texture, allowing it along with its loaded message to be a contender for the coming awards season.