XXY Reviews: “The 13th” by Ava DuVernay

XXY Reviews: “The 13th” by Ava DuVernay

“Why is America – the land of the free – the most incarcerated country in the world?”

A film documentary by Ava DuVernay, titled after America’s 13th amendment, begins with this question. And, more importantly, ends by answering it. Spoiler – it is good old capital profit. 

It is a film that you should not miss; and yes, I use should to imply moral obligation. 

The documentary tells the story of the criminalisation of black and Latino men as a political agenda of America’s white elite. We have activists and intellectuals endlessly reminding us that the oppression and position of people of colour in Western society is due to a backlog of history. Often, this is met with confusion. Not only from white people, but some people of colour who have come to internalise racism due to exactly that, an acceptance of a narrative embedded in Western history.

As American history goes, slavery was abolished in the 1860s. A century on, the Civil Rights Movement fought to gain black people the vote in the 1960s. If you look at this in isolation then we, the West, seem somewhat progressive. But here is a documentary that articulates, exceptionally well, the objective of institutional racism, and fills in the gaps between those two landmark moments of history. 

DuVernay chronologically details how America went from the abolishment of the slave trade to the present day Black Lives Matter movement, by highlighting how prisons have come to profit off of the bodies they imprison.

The indirect consequence of the criminalisation of black men is money. Do not be fooled. We may use hindsight to herald Martin Luther King Jr as a hero – the peaceful protester – but during his time he was ridiculed as none other than another black social delinquent.

Aaron Turner

Upon watching The 13th, the audience will see proof of the economically-driven political agenda of racism. It makes a devastating and complex story accessible. People of colour are telling us of their reality, and we brush it off as hypersensitivity. We do not get how interwoven the system of passing down values and generational inherited prejudice got us to this point. Here is the evidence. The 13th simply reveals deliberate decisions and policies implemented to keep black men enslaved in prisons and all people of colour tyrannised in their own communities.

The biggest danger of institutional oppression – and the key to its very survival – is that it is seemingly faceless. It can actively thrive because people cannot quite pinpoint it. This film makes a move to put together the pieces and to reveal those faces, too. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton likewise come under scrutiny.

There’s a chilling scene when Trump talks about “the good old days”. Footage of black people being persecuted in the streets for protesting in the 1960s is compared with black people being persecuted at Trump rallies. An insight into how he plans to make America great again?

There is also light shed on Clinton’s speech, during her husband’s time in office, when she used the term “superpredator” to describe young people with “no conscience or no empathy” joining and participating in gang activities. Although Hillary Clinton did not directly call African-Americans “superpredators”, the use of the term was irresponsible. It was morally condemnable because it aided and abetted the profiling of young black men.

The 13th serves as a source of information for when people do not understand where anger is coming from or where it is directed. It validates that anger. In fact, it practically challenges you, as the viewer, to question why you are not angry.

We ought to show our gratitude to black activists, who have time and time again demonstrated resilience in the face of violence and oppression. Black people take the brunt of it every time. Such determination to go on helps all marginalised people of colour.

The key thing to take from this documentary film is that American history cannot be accurately investigated without also looking at the part race plays. The same is true for the rest of the West. The US is a country that, to this day, relies on the slave labour of black men. The land of the free is a country built on slavery. It has reinvented slavery so we no longer see slaves; we see criminals.


Written by Michelle Houlston,

New York Junior Editor

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