“13th” Documentary Review

Taw Owens, Writer

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After viewing Ava DuVernay’s critically acclaimed documentary, “13th”, I was left in shock.  The movie kicks off immediately with statistics starting with the fact that the U.S has only 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners.  “13th” tackles the issues of racial inequality in relation to the 13th amendment.  The amendment seemingly abolishes slavery “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”  With this as the backdrop, Ava creates a beautifully crafted film with interesting perspectives and interviews that actively makes the viewer want to get up and help reform and change the injustices in the country.

Throughout the documentary, DuVernay gathers interviews from experts in the field of studying the prison industry, racism, and history alongside social justice activists like Angela Davis, and Bryan Stevenson.  “13th” finds and connects the links between the abolition of slavery in the 1800s all the way up to the present day prison system.  During The Age of Reconstruction, newly freed African Americans were punished severely for minor offenses leading to a large number of blacks to continue being slaves to the state, only this time it was constitutionally legal as they were being punished for a crime.  Around this time lynching and public persecution against African Americans was widespread in the south,with the KKK having a large representation in the southern government, continuing the history of oppression supposedly stopped after the Civil War.  With the coming years, racism became to be looked down on and other methods were used to secretly attack minorities and appeal to the inner racism of white voters.  These methods include the war on drugs, mandatory minimums and the privatization of prisons.  The documentary also addresses each issue factually and gives perspectives from each side, as well as criticizing both political parties for their respective roles in the continuation and enforcement of harmful discriminatory practices.

DuVernay does an excellent job not just in how she gives the facts but also in how she presents them.  The cinematography used in the film is beautifully shot, and each interview has different camera angles and locations as a way to keep everything visually appealing.  Animated visuals are also used as a way to keep up with the amount of people incarcerated in the United States over the years.  The statistics are sometimes perfectly placed with the visuals which further contributes to the effectiveness of the film.  A certain scene in particular creates a haunting visual for how the racism so prevalent in the past hasn’t really disappeared but rather been hidden.  The scene shows old footage of an older black gentleman walking on the sidewalk while being harassed and attacked by an angry crowd.  Over the footage plays audio clippings of President Trump’s rallies in which he talks about how in the “good ole days” protesters were “carried out in stretchers”.  The scene syncs up with the audio, creating a disturbing reminder of how as a country we haven’t progressed as much as we may think.

“13th” utilizes all of its film techniques well, and has them contribute to the overall feel and messaging of it all.  The lighting makes the interviews crisp and clear, the cinematography helps catch the viewers’ attention and has them focus in on what’s being shown.  The theme at hand is very heavy and can bring a feeling of guilt or sadness to the viewer but it can also wake one up to action.  My experience after viewing was that I wanted to do something about it all.  I felt the need to learn even more than I had already and tell others in an effort to educate anyone I could.  If these issues were more widely understood and acknowledged, something could be done to stop them.  This is how powerful the documentary is at doing its job.  Each shot, each fact, each statistic builds into creating an informing and gripping film.

“13th” provided a well-crafted and well put together film that grabs the viewer’s attention and keeps it for the entire almost two hour runtime.  Each interview brings something new to the table and the information being given can almost be overwhelming to take in but this film manages to accomplish the goal it most likely set out to do, inform and inspire.  This is a Oscar-nominated documentary that deserved every bit of acclaim it received when initially released.  I’d recommend this film not just to those who like documentaries but to those who are interested in racism, politics, or history. In fact, I’d say this movie is a must watch for everyone.  The knowledge and insight gained would greatly benefit society as whole and DeVernay does a flawless job at presenting a well thought out and relevant issue.

 

 

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