Ava DuVernay’s “13th” follows transformative systems of oppresion

The director of “Selma” examines history of racial oppression in United States

Missy Gerlach, Staff Reporter

Illustration by Haley King
Illustration by Haley King

The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads “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, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” As the amendment that ended slavery in the United States, the Thirteenth Amendment is often regarded as an important and valuable one. However, the new Netflix documentary “13th” presents a new and critical depiction of both the amendment and its lasting effects.

Directed by Ava DuVernay, “13th,” released on and by Netflix in September 2016, focuses on a loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment which, it argues, has allowed the institution of slavery to be replaced by the mass incarceration of African Americans in the United States. The documentary moves through America’s past, analyzing the evolution of racial discrimination and oppression. “13th” uses a variety of different mediums to convey this history to the viewer, including video footage from both newsreels and movies, photos, audio recordings, graphics and music.

Much of the content of the documentary comes through in a plethora of interviews with 38 interviewees. Among these are the famed activist Angela Davis, author Michelle Alexander (“The New Jim Crow”), political activist Van Jones, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and professors from universities across the country. Together, these interviewees take the viewer through centuries of systematic and ever-changing oppression of black Americans.

Although it offers limited representation of the opposition, “13th” operates from the perspective that viewers already understand their viewpoint – that the opposing narrative is presented to the public daily, and has been since the Thirteenth Amendment was enacted. This platform allows DuVernay to dive into the nuances of her argument without sacrificing time and effort to an argument that has already been made.

Some of the most powerful moments in the movie stem from DuVernay’s focus on current events, like the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent presidential election. The Black Lives Matter movement is discussed in the interviews toward the end of the film, whose members emphasize that it is only when black lives matter that all can truly matter. Most notably, DuVernay creates a montage of video recordings of recent police brutality events and the deaths they have resulted in. The graphic videos contribute to one of the most powerful and difficult-to-watch parts of the documentary.

At another point, DuVernay uses audio from a Donald Trump rally and overlays it with images of racially-motivated aggression. While Trump speaks, the images cut back and forth between video footage of black Americans being harassed at Trump rallies and decades-old footage of black men and woman being punched, beaten and shoved by white assailants. The interplay between the footage draws attention to unavoidable similarities between racial aggression today and in previous decades.

In one particularly harrowing moment, the viewer hears Trump say, “I love the old days, you know what they used to do to guys like that when they were at a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.” With his last comment, footage of a black woman being rushed away on a stretcher plays. Cheers from Trump’s rally follow his words. With the presidential election now behind us, this moment is even more impactful in its implications for the future.

Altogether, DuVernay masterfully crafts this documentary into a powerful and captivating retelling of racial prejudices. The interviewees produce a comprehensive and cogent analysis of the transformative and systematic oppression of blacks that has dominated the United States for centuries. “13th” is guaranteed to impress audiences with its vision and leaves viewers with a new sense of awareness and motivation to address issues that are more timely than ever. 

Whitman students can attend a viewing of “13th” on Thursday, November 17 in the Olin Auditorium at 7:00 p.m. The documentary is available to stream on Netflix.