Ava Duvernay’s 13th should be considered essential viewing for everyone old enough to vote in the United States. The film details racism and the systematic suppression of minorities in America from the end of the Civil War through the present day, making clear the numerous legal and political twists and turns that have become accepted as the norm without most knowing what was being done. It’s an achievement sure to draw the attention of Academy voters when the year is over, but what matters most is that it also feels poised to make a big impact on the average movie watcher like you and me.
This story may seem straightforward, but in truth it’s far more complicated than it initially appears. A loophole in the 13th Amendment essentially turns anyone convicted of a crime into a slave in the eye of the government. This, coupled with more than a century of lawmaking designed to keep people of certain colors or economic levels from succeeding, creates an endless cycle of hate that has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry that shows no regard from human decency. The 13th does its best to lay all this out in a way anyone can understand, and in doing so creates a powerful message on the weight of words and the impact they can have on people
As the film moves from historical wrongdoing into the modern age, 13th takes aim at the prison system in America. The film reveals that while only five percent of the world’s population lives in the United States, more than 25 percent of the people incarcerated globally reside in our country, and that number continues to rise with each passing year. Lawmakers have found a way to convince people to take plea deals instead of exercising their right to trial by setting extraordinary minimum sentencing penalties on crimes. Instead of viewing a trial as a way to tell their side of a story our system leads people to believe trials are a gamble where they must gamble against police in a wager that could take decades of their life, if not all the time they have left on this planet. Our country has essentially bullied people into denying their own truth, and that is something Duvernay—as well as any logical person—knows cannot continue.
To explain what exactly has and is happening, Duvernay relies on a collection of scholars and journalists, some more known than others, as well as politicians. She also uses numerous motion graphics filled with startling statistics and a variety of archival footage, photographs, and audio clips. Whenever the word ‘criminal’ is used in place of a specific minority or group, Duvernay flashes the word across the screen in big bold letters. In doing so the film manages to examine cultural conditioning through purposeful implementation that makes casting an entire race of people as evil or somehow lesser appear surprisingly simple. And in truth, it is.
There are multiple versions of history, and the amount of truth you get largely depends on who is telling the story and where their alliances lie. 13th sets itself apart from other films that attempt to showcase systemic racism by using what we’re taught as a foundation to give new meanings to changes promoted as being good for all people. From the introduction of the 13th Amendment, straight on through the supposed war on drugs and the creation of the private prison system, Duvernay’s collection of informed people and slick infographics makes an undeniable and compelling argument for necessary change in the immediate future.