13th (2016)

It may sometimes feel too didactic, but this documentary about the proliferation of prisons in the US as set in the context of racial inequality has its moments of shocking power.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Review #2,063

Dir. Ava DuVernay
2016 | USA | Documentary | 100 mins | 1.78:1 | English
NC16 (Netflix rating) for some disturbing scenes and coarse language

Plot: An in-depth look at the prison system in the United States and how it reveals the nation’s history of racial inequality.
Awards: Nom. for Best Documentary Feature (Oscars)
Distributor: Netflix

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Race, Law, Politics, Prison System
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: Netflix
Spoilers: No

As a documentary, 13th hits you like a hammer as it ploughs through America’s lowest points in history concerning race, politics and law. 

By using the prison system as symptomatic of racial inequality and discrimination in the US, director Ava DuVernay (of 2014’s Selma) depicts its proliferation as one Administration after another, notably the period from Nixon to Clinton, pursued similar political objectives under the guise of different names: to build more prisons to bring down the crime rate in the name of ‘law and order’ or to wage a ‘war on drugs’. 

As nearly all subjects interviewed in 13th would attest, law and politics had been weaponised to ‘tackle’ minority communities through implicit institutionalised racism. 

“So let’s look at the statistics. The United States is home to 5% of the world’s population. But 25% of the world’s prisoners.”

Cases of extreme injustice are discussed in DuVernay’s work, most involving Blacks, and so are factors such as media effects and capitalism that played a key role in shaping horrific policies over the decades. 

A shocking 2 million-odd people remain in jail in the US, and it is often the minority groups that bear the brunt of unjust policies and biased application of laws that benefit profit-making corporations. 

DuVernay’s work may sometimes feel too didactic and is not always consistently engaging—the monotonous portions on the American Legislative Exchange Council lost my interest temporarily, not to mention the use of rap music as transitions does wear its welcome after a while. 

But where the film works best is when it tells us more about America’s racial history through a myriad of lenses, be it through screen representation in D.W. Griffith’s controversial The Birth of a Nation, the social impact of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, or the police brutality of current times, to name a few.   

Grade: B+



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