Documentary Recommendation: 13TH

Powerful, infuriating and at times overwhelming, Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13TH will get your blood boiling and tear ducts leaking.” -Manohla Dargis, New York Times



It is not a secret that the United States of America, despite having only 5% of the entire world’s population, is home to 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. And, despite only making up only about a quarter of the country’s population, black and hispanic men combined make up 58% of all prisoners in the US (NAACP, 2017). Ava DuVernay explores why that is the case in her award-winning documentary, 13TH.

Found on Netflix, the documentary is a powerful and important one. DuVernay exposes the oft-overlooked loophole in the 13th Amendment, which states: “Neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States” (United States Constitution, 1865). Though the 13th Amendment freed the slaves on paper, the loophole it created through the phrase “except as punishment for a crime” has, as DuVernay explores in her documentary, contributed to the mass-incarceration of black men, something that, as author Michelle Alexander describes, is just a new form of slavery and racism.


The documentary looks farther into the theory Alexander presents in her book, The New Jim Crow. She argues that the idea of black men and women as slaves in the United States has never really gone away, despite the 13th Amendment. She charts the development of Jim Crow, from restrictive voting laws to the idea of “separate, but equal,” and follows these ideas to their role in today’s society, what she calls “The New Jim Crow.” She focuses specifically on the “War on Drugs” waged by the federal government through the late twentieth century, described as backlash against the gains that were made during the Civil Rights movement and the ways in which longer sentencing, the privatization of the prison industry, and general racism has contributed to the extremely high number of incarcerated black men.

I watched the documentary last semester as part of my Gender, Culture, and Representation class, and it was highly recommended by my Gender and Human Rights professor this semester. Though it had been on my list for a few months, I am grateful that I had a class that finally forced me to sit down and watch the film. To call it eye-opening would be an understatement. Prior to watching the film, I was relatively confident in my historical knowledge, at least in terms of the history of the United States. However, 13TH showed me just how many important topics my high school history classes left out, topics that, though they expose the “uglier” side of American history, are essential to the understanding of the racial divide in the United States today. I highly recommend 13TH to anyone interested in the topic of the construction and application of “race” in American society, as well as to anyone interested in general US history following the Civil Rights movement. Additionally, 13TH has a powerful soundtrack, and is visually interesting to view. Next time you’re looking for something to watch, try 13TH. Here’s a link to the trailer:



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