Ava DuVernay’s 13th

By: Pratima Bajaj


Racial inequality has long been a topic embedded in the foundation and culture of the United States, and even today, minorities continue to face extreme discrimination. In particular, African-Americans, although not bound by slavery anymore, are still victims of prejudice by the legal system, especially when it comes to arrests and convictions. Ava DuVernay, in her 2016, award-winning documentary 13th, explores exactly this as she delves into the history of the insubordination of African-Americans while analyzing the disproportionate number of black

Fig. 1. Cover photo for 13th. Duvernay, Ava. “Ava Duvernay: 13th.” Ava Duvernay, n.d., http://www.avaduvernay.com/about/.

people in American prisons. She specifically discusses the 13th amendment, which outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude unless they were used as punishment for crime. DuVernay scrutinizes the usage of this loop hole as a mechanism to continue binding African-Americans in a modern form of slavery through conviction for minor crimes. Through her analysis of how and why the criminal justice system is biased against African-Americans, DuVernay also discusses the extreme effects of such blatant racism on multiple generations of African-Americans. She considers the impact on relationships and self-esteem, and she scrutinizes the generational effects of imprisonment and a lack of education. Moreover, DuVernay connects historical events to modern issues, such as the war on drugs, to demonstrate the current physical and mental imprisonment of African-Americans.

Historical and Cultural Context

Especially in the past few years, there have been many headlines about black people being unfairly treated by both the police force and the legal system. Such conversation dates back to the period immediately following the Civil War because after more than four million African-Americans were released from servitude, there was supposedly no place for them to go. Since they were previously considered property that was utilized to enhanced the Southern economy, a large void was left in the economic market because the primary labor source was not available anymore. The loop hole in the 13th amendment was then exploited as numerous black people were arrested for extremely minor crimes, such as loitering and vagrancy, resulting in the first prison boom in America. As criminals, they were again used as sources of labor to rebuild the economy of the South, which blurred the line between being a criminal versus a slave. Since the prisons required little capital investment and maintenance,

Fig. 2. The Birth of a Nation poster. “The Birth of a Nation (1915).” IMDb. Amazon, n.d., http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0004972/.

even in terms of healthcare and sanitation, labor through imprisonment proved to be cheaper than the industry built through slavery. Simultaneously, the rhetoric surrounding the black male rapidly changed into one that described him as a menacing, threatening, and animalistic human. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation is a prime example because it portrayed all its African-American male characters as terrorizing, and it negatively influenced the perceptions of the viewers. This rhetoric amplified through the years, resulting in the idea that blacks are more criminal and more prone to criminal behavior than whites are (13th). Undoubtedly, these impressions contributed greatly to the disparity present in today’s supposedly post-segregation era, illustrating that the cycles of oppression of African-Americans are directly connected to America’s faulty prison system.


One of the prominent historical transitions that DuVernay discusses is the one from the Jim Crow Laws to the Civil Rights Movement to today’s Black Lives Matter movement. She explores the effects of continued white supremacy and black degradation on both morale and self-image. While doing so, DuVernay discusses the geographic movement of the newly freed slaves as they attempted to escape the flawed criminal justice system. During the post-Civil War era, many African-Americans fled their black communities in favor of various smaller cities in the United States, shifting the overall demographic geography of the country (13th). The impacts of this wave of movement are visible in today’s geographic locations of prominent black communities.

Politics also played, and still do play, a significant role in the criminalization of African-Americans. Specifically, the Nixon administration is known to have begun the cycle of scandalizing and criminalizing African-Americans who struggled with drug addictions. Instead of providing rehabilitation facilities, the administration used the media to exploit the addictions. Furthermore, John Ehlrichman, who served as Nixon’s advisor, supposedly admitted to using administrative power to persuade the public to connect African-Americans to heroin. This resulted in further disturbance in black communities, and it amplified the negative image and reputation of the black man as a vicious criminal. Moreover, the Republican “Southern strategy” appealed to the racism of Southern white voters to ensure that the candidates in office were those who would continue the track of black subordination and dehumanization. This tactic proved worthwhile as laws were passed to discourage the assimilation of freed slaves into society and to continue treating them as a subservient group (13th).

Themes and Style

Throughout the documentary, DuVernay brings in a wide array of speakers to comment on the different perspectives of the topics she wishes to discuss. With help from the speakers, DuVernay attempts to convince her audience that the American legal system is biased against African-Americans and that the thirteenth amendment is abused to entrap black people in a modern form of slavery. She argues that America’s current habits of unlawful incarceration outwardly mirror, and may even be worse than, slavery; DuVernay even points out that there are more African-Americans bound by the criminal justice system than there were enslaved in 1850. By providing a timeline that begins from the era of slavery and lasts until present time, DuVernay illustrates the evolution, or lack thereof, of the treatment of African-Americans. She deeply examines each prominent phase of African-American life in America, including the slavery and Reconstruction time periods, while elaborating on the impact of key court cases like Plessy v. Ferguson. By then discussing mass incarceration in our current, post-segregated era, DuVernay aims to emphasize how the effects of slavery and oppression can still be felt. Particularly, there is much discussion regarding the consequences of incarceration on African-American communities in that the high rate of incarceration repeatedly damages social networks, distorts social norms, and destroys social citizenship (13th).

Of the many major themes presented throughout the documentary, economics is one that can be traced to the roots, and DuVernay delves deep into the economics of prisons and prison workers. It is apparent that prisoner workers provide labor for various organizations; however, the prison system is an “industrial complex” within itself. Along with discussing the multitude of connections between racism and the global economy, DuVernay also deliberates the extent to which African-Americans are incarcerated with the intention of having a labor source for tasks that are otherwise unpopular among Americans. In this way, DuVernay treats incarceration as an industry and prison and punishment as capitalistic profit (13th).

A highly appreciated stylistic technique that DuVernay utilizes is her paired approach to topics related to slavery and mass incarceration; she tends to analyze themes in word pairs and phrases that contradict each other, such as person and property, labor force and prison workers, and minor crimes. DuVernay first explores the meaning of each word individually in context, and she then connects them in a manner that allows the audience to understand how the two seemingly unrelated concepts are related.For example, she thoroughly compares the use of both slaves and prisoners as sources of labor, emphasizing the lack of distinction

Fig. 3. A photo from “13th.” Keegan, Rebecca. “Director Ava DuVernay tells Democrats her documentary, ’13th,’ is ‘not propaganda.’” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 14, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-13th-doc-trump-20161014-snap-htmlstory.html.

between the two. DuVernay also considers the meanings of “enslaved” and “freed” to analyze whether African-Americans truly became free after the ratification of the 13th amendment (13th). Such duality provokes critical thought on the viewer’s part because he/she is forced to confront the reality of the connotations as they pertain to a part of history that is typically presented in a more simplified version. In a more abstract manner, DuVernay also compels her viewers to question the fashion in which concepts are labeled. With “person” and “property,” she questions how a person is distinguished from property and how exactly that distinction is made. With a psychological approach, DuVernay scrutinizes the construction of the mental framework of ideas and meanings that are seemingly obvious in order to urge her viewers to reflect on the events that led them to think the way they now do (13th: A Conversation with Oprah Winfrey...).

Critical Conversation

On the grand scale, the United States is widely known for its imprisonment statistics, namely that it houses 25% of the world’s prisoners even though it only has 5% of the world’s population, and since 1970, the prison population has risen from 327,000 to over 2 million

Fig. 4. Incarceration rates by ethnicity. Lopez, German. “Mass incarceration in America, explained in 22 maps and charts.” Vox, 11 Oct. 2016, https://www.vox.com/2015/7/13/8913297/mass-incarceration-maps-charts.

(13th). As a war against drugs is waged, and minorities are ruthlessly targeted by the criminal justice system, African-Americans are again increasingly criminalized and incarcerated at a disproportionate rate when compared to other ethnicities, as DuVernay emphasizes in her documentary. For example, African American males comprise 40.2% of the U.S. correctional population even though they only make up 6.5% of the U.S. population. Moreover, blacks are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites while black women are imprisoned at twice the rate of white women. Even children face the effects of racial bias as 32% of children arrested nationwide are African-American (13th). Thus, the perceptions of race that grew out of slavery hundreds of years ago continue to negatively impact the lives of black people all over the nation.

A prominent aspect of unjust mass incarceration focuses on the high rates of criminal justice control for young, African-American males and how the public policies that were established to control issues such as crime and illegal drug usage are strongly contributing to the disproportionate number of African-Americans in prison rather than helping with the problems. Foremost, the War on Drugs has been analyzed by DuVernay as a policy change that more so directly targets African-Americans rather than reduces drug usage (13th). When the federal, state, and local policies began to strongly pursue a War on Drugs, police departments were pressured to show progress, and to do so quickly, they “[enhanced] policing and arrest in already disadvantaged neighborhoods, which [were] disproportionately poor and black” (Bobo et al., “Unfair by Design…”). Thus, the rate of the incarceration of black people increased as drug use remained the same. On a related note, disparities in discriminatory prosecutions are also best explained through analysis of statistics regarding drug violations. Even though it has been found that African-Americans are not more likely to use drugs than members of other races, they are still much more likely to be arrested and sentenced for such crimes (Chin, “Race, the War on Drugs…).

On the larger scale, mass incarceration affects much more than just the people being incarcerated, as DuVernay emphasizes throughout 13th.  Through the biased criminal system, entire black communities are shattered as younger children are exposed to concepts and circumstances they should be shielded from. For example, in inner city neighborhoods that are prone to constant arrests and convictions, children and teenagers constantly see the increasing number of family and friends that are imprisoned and incarcerated; these situations adversely affect their mental growth and development. In terms of economics, a financial strain is placed on the families and communities as more black men are congregated in prisons rather than in the work force (Roberts, “The Social and Moral Cost…”). The pursuit of education is also impacted because thousands of adolescents, most of whom are black, are removed from school and placed into correctional systems. For this reason, “there are fewer young black men in college than are in the correctional system” (Blumenson and Nilsen, “How to Construct an Underclass…”). A cycle of illiteracy then begins to establish itself, affecting generation after generation.

Just as how there is much conversation about the topics discussed in 13th, there is also abundant debate about the documentary, itself. On one side, DuVernay’s work was met with much appreciation by many critics, such as The New York Time’s Manohla Dargis. By describing the documentary as a film that “weaves original, handsomely shot talking-head interviews with well-researched, occasionally surprising and gravely disturbing archival material,” Dargis praises it for its impact on the audience’s perceptions of “race, justice, and mass incarceration” in America (Dargis, “Review…”). However, National Review’s Armond White, along with other critics, denounces 13th for focusing too much on the “black civil-rights past” while ignoring and “[misrepresenting] black Americans’ spiritual, ethical, and economic drive” (White, “The 13th…”). Thus, while some believe that DuVernay presented less-than-cinematic subject matter in an accurate, eye-opening, and compelling manner, others claim that her documentary excessively appeals to pathos without considering the progress that has been made.

Works Cited

13th. Dir. Ava DuVernay. Netflix, 2016. Netflix. Web. 4 October 2017.  

13th: A Conversation with Oprah Winfrey and Ava DuVernay. Dir. Oprah Winfrey. Netflix, 2017. Netflix. Web. 4 October 2017.

Blumenson, Eric; Nilsen, Eva S. “How to Construct an Underclass, Or How the War on Drugs Became a War on Education.” Journal of Gender, Race and Justice 6.1 (2002): 61-110.

Bobo, Lawrence D. and Victor Thompson. “Unfair by Design: The War on Drugs Race, and the Legitimacy of the Criminal Justice System.” Social Research, vol. 73, no. 2, Summer 2006, pp. 445-472.

Chin, Gabriel J. “Race, the War on Drugs, and the Collateral Consequences of Criminal Conviction.” Journal of Gender, Race and Justice 6.2 (2002): 253-276.

Dargis, Manohla. “Review: ‘13th,’ the Journey From Shackles to Prison Bars.” The New York Times, 29 Sept. 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/30/movies/13th-review-ava-duvernay.html?referrer=google_kp. Accessed 15 Nov. 2017.

Roberts, Dorothy E. “The Social and Moral Cost of Mass Incarceration in African American Communities.” Stanford Law Review 56.5 (2004): 1271-1306.

White, Armond. “The 13th via the Un-talented Tenth.” National Review, 5 Oct. 2016, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/440727/13th-documentary-politically-correct-dull-cowardly. Accessed 15 Nov. 2017.

Further Reading

Benner, Laurence A. “Racial Disparity in Narcotics Search Warrants.” Journal of Gender, Race and Justice 6.2 (2002): 183-224.

Burris-Kitchen, Deborah and Paul Burris. “From Slavery to Prisons: A Historical Delineation of the Criminalization of African Americans.” Journal of Global Intelligence & Policy, vol. 4, no. 5, June 2011, pp. 1-16.

Green, Robert L. African-American Males: Education or Incarceration. 01 Oct. 1991.

Hudson, Wayne V. Zero Tolerance Educational Policies and Expansion of the School-To-Prison Pipeline for African American Males: A Multi-Conceptual Analysis of the Linkages. ProQuest LLC, ProQuest LLC, 01 Jan. 2011.

Mauer, Marc, and Tracy Huling. “Young Black Americans and the Criminal Justice System: Five Years Later.” The Sentencing Project, Oct. 1995.

Keywords: mass incarceration, prison boom, slavery, 13th amendment, DuVernay, War on Drugs, criminalization, African-Americans, post-slavery, oppression