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Should I Watch..? '13th' (2016)

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the Big Deal?

13th is a political documentary film released in 2016 that was written, produced, and directed by Ava DuVernay. The film examines the relationship between race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States, and the film is named after the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which abolished slavery in 1865. The film argues that the amendment itself contains a clause that has led to the mass imprisonment of African Americans and enforced penal labour replacing slavery as a way to boost the economic recovery of the southern states after the Civil War. The film contains a number of interviews with politicians, experts and activists such as Cory Booker, Angela Davis, Newt Gingrich and Bryan Stevenson among others. Distributed by Netflix who have since made the film free to watch on YouTube, the film received a positive reception from critics and was nominated for numerous awards, including an Oscar nod for Best Documentary Feature.


What's it About?

The Thirteenth Amendment was passed into law in 1865 and outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude across the US except as a punishment for crime. For states in the south that had lost the Civil War, urgent economic recovery was required, and this led to a number of racist policies and practices to replace slavery. Popular films such as 1915's The Birth Of A Nation were responsible for helping demonise African American citizens now freed from their enslavers. Using the clause in the Thirteenth Amendment, many states arrested countless African American men and women - often on the most minor of charges - and forced them to work in prison labour, effectively making them slaves of the state.

With legislative changes known as Jim Crow laws brought in to help reinforce segregation, the civil rights movement of the 1960s helped to restore some rights for African Americans. But this was alongside a sudden increase in law enforcement that often targeted protestors, continuing to enforce the link between crime and African American people in the public consciousness. This marked the start of an explosive rise in the number of incarcerated people within the US - often made up of black and other ethnic minorities - following the tenures of Presidents Nixon and Reagan, using language and policies that aren't unfamiliar today with the current President...


What's to Like?

Ava DuVernay's searing documentary is a deeply uncomfortable watch and not just because of the film's narrative. For viewers like me who were born long after the Civil Rights movement, the photos of lynchings and bodies swinging above a smiling, smirking crowd are truly shocking. Sadly, they are not unexpected given the current state of race relations in the US these days but they are a gruesome visual. Combined with the film's narrative detailing the exploitation of the clause in the thirteenth amendment and the commercialisation of prison labour in the States, the film paints a grim and unflattering picture of life in the Land of the Free. With shady corporations using their political leverage to further their own profits and agenda, the film also examines the behind-the-scenes role played by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) - an organisation made up of political figures and private sector representatives that openly prepares draft legislation for Republican figures to then propose as a bill.

However, 13th is more than just a politically incendiary and heartbreaking history lesson. The documentary takes a lot of time explaining how America has arrived at where it is now with prisons effectively industrialised for the benefit of private companies. But the film is also equally adept at portraying the increasingly militant police in the US and their tactics of dehumanising and racially targeting ethnic minorities in scenes we have all seen replicated in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. The film finishes off with a horrifying montage of footage from numerous deaths at the hands of the US police officers, mirroring the sickening photos seen at the start of the film.

The film takes an unflinching look at the horrors of slavery and the subsequent treatment of African Americans after the abolition, which is even more uncomfortable at times.

The film takes an unflinching look at the horrors of slavery and the subsequent treatment of African Americans after the abolition, which is even more uncomfortable at times.

Fun Facts

  • The film was shot and edited in complete secrecy by DuVernay once work had finished on her previous film, Selma. The film only became public knowledge when it was announced to open the 2016 New York Film Festival, the first documentary ever to do so.
  • The song 'Letter To The Free' performed by Common featured on the film's soundtrack and received plenty of recognition from critics. It was nominated for awards at the Black Reel Awards, the Critics' Choice Documentary Awards, the Hollywood Music In Media and it won the Emmy for Outstanding Original Music.
  • DuVernay deliberately chose the backdrops for each interview very carefully, often using brick walls and industrial equipment. DuVernay wanted these locations to represent the labour "that had been stolen from black people in this country for centuries".

What's Not to Like?

If you can stomach the more bloody or violent images 13th presents, there isn't a great deal to dislike about the documentary. It's refreshing to find a film that deals purely in facts and statistics to tell a story of astonishing abuse by successive Governments, especially compared to the constant barrage of corruption, insane tweets and cries of 'fake news' from the Trump administration. Of course, DuVernay has a history of telling stories focused on race relations in the US - Selma was based on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march while her 2019 TV series for Netflix When They See Us is based on the infamous 1989 Central Park jogger case. I do get the sense that DuVernay is certainly making a point but I have no issue with that - it's certainly a point that needs to be made.

Frankly, as disturbing and uncomfortable as 13th is, it's a relief to find a film giving a voice to a community that has been overlooked and underserved for generations. Perhaps an updated look at the issue of race in America since 2016, when Trump became President, would further illustrate the continuing problems as well as highlight just how destructive his tenure in the White House has been. His administration has been keen to control the media from day one whereas the narrative told here is explosive, upsetting and deeply unfriendly to those who enjoy the same white privilege that I do, albeit as an Englishman. For viewers like me, it's impossible to fully understand just how much discrimination affects the lives of every African American or Latino citizen in the US but the documentary gives as good an impression as any other film I can think of.

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Director Ava DuVernay has created a powerful and evocative narrative, one that generates a combination of revulsion, sympathy and indignation.

Director Ava DuVernay has created a powerful and evocative narrative, one that generates a combination of revulsion, sympathy and indignation.

Should I Watch It?

Without a doubt, this is one of the most illuminating and horrifying documentaries I have ever seen. While it lacks the satirical edge of most of Michael Moore's equally devastating documentaries, 13th feels like a watershed moment - I advise everyone to seek it out on YouTube now that Netflix have made it available on the video viewing service. The film tells a sorry and shocking tale that deserves to be heard and casts the BLM movement in a deeper and wider context. Hopefully, there will be more of this to come - even if you'll need a strong stomach for parts of it.

Great For: the Black Lives Matter movement, the George Floyd protesters, education, conspiracy theorists

Not So Great For: Republicans, anyone who thinks the US is the Land Of The Free, white audiences

What else should I watch?

I mentioned Michael Moore deliberately above because his documentaries frequently have a political and often personal outlook on a particular issue. Take his Oscar-winning Bowling For Columbine, a fiery and impassioned examination on the obsession with guns within America, the impact of the rising number of school shootings and the defiant resistance against changes to the gun laws by the all-mighty National Rifle Association led at the time by Charlton Heston. His most political film, Fahrenheit 9/11, examined the country in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001 and the efforts of the Bush administration to use the atrocity to justify illegal military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than any other, it was this documentary that cemented Moore's position as a champion of the left in the US but having polarising the man himself is, Fahrenheit 9/11 remains the highest earning documentary in history.

The issue of race in America has been covered by countless documentary makers over the years and continues to be as fertile a subject for a film as it is controversial. LA 92 is a look back at the LA Riots that erupted following the brutal assault by police on Rodney King in 1992, I Am Not Your Negro is another 2016 documentary in which writer James Baldwin discusses the story of race in the US via an unfinished novel he was working on while What Happened, Miss Simone? is a documentary covering the life, loves, music and legacy of one of my favourite recording artists, Nina Simone. Alternatively, if you're looking for a documentary with arguably one of the best soundtracks you could ever wish for then Amazing Grace is probably your best shot - a concert film featuring Aretha Franklin in her prime in 1972, supported by James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir.

Main Cast


Angela Davis

Self - interviewee

Bryan Stevenson

Self - interviewee

Van Jones

Self - interviewee

Newt Gingrich

Self - interviewee

Cory Booker

Self - interviewee

Richard Nixon

(archive footage)

Bill Clinton

(archive footage)

Henry Louis Gates Jr

Self - interviewee

Technical Information

DirectorAva DuVernay

Written by

Spencer Averick & Ava DuVernay

Running Time

100 minutes

Release Date (UK)

7th October, 2016




Documentary, Crime, History

Academy Award Nominations

Best Documentary Feature

© 2020 Benjamin Cox

Soap Box

Benjamin Cox (author) from Norfolk, UK on August 17, 2020:

It certainly has. Perhaps it's no coincidence that Netflix decided to make the film free to watch in the run-up to the election as well as the tragic murder of George Floyd.

Pat Mills from East Chicago, Indiana on August 08, 2020:

I'm way behind on my Netflix watching, but I want to make time for this one. Trump is more than racist - he is a misanthrope. If you're not his yes man, you're a nobody. I just keep wondering if he's going to attempt to executive privilege his way into a second term, since he's shown little knowledge of American law. I'm sure he's made the issues DuVernay has raised more pronounced.

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