How we are tolerating slavery in today’s world: Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th
The 2016 American documentary 13th by Ava DuVernay has received widespread critical acclaim and is still to this day one of the most relevant documentaries on Netflix. Throughout the documentary, director Ava DuVernay reflects on the history of racial inequality in the United States, highlighting that the prison system is flawed, with the majority of prisoners in the nation being disproportionately African-Americans.
The film first came out on Netflix, where you can still watch it, but was made available for free on Youtube by Netflix itself in April 2020, which is indicative of how relevant the documentary still is in today’s world.
Ava DuVernay´s 13th: Essential Viewing
The documentary functions as a way for the filmmaker Ava DuVernay to illustrate her compelling argument both visually and through data and talks with experts on the matter. According to 13th, despite the apparent abolishment of slavery through the 13th amendment in 1865, slavery is still present in today’s world through a loophole in that same amendment that allows slavery in the particular context of imprisonment.
Therefore, the documentary argues that slavery is still vastly present today in the form of imprisonment, which largely affects black people. This is a clear example of how the institutionalized racism we are still fighting against today actually has deeper roots in American history. It is worth mentioning that institutionalised racism is arguably not a uniquely American issue.
Although it may be prevalent and perhaps more evident in the US, as the political climate and protests have shown, the reality is that systemic racism is present to some level in many other countries’ institutions and laws as well.
In fact, 13th resonated all over the world: in particular, the views of the film witnessed a surge in 2020 in the wake of the George Floyd protests which themselves spread worldwide shortly after the events.
Ava DuVernay herself reflected on the distribution of the film – which occurred on Netflix, something that was then uncommon – rather than through theatrical release, which was industry standard before the pandemic. She explained that her priority was reaching the widest audience possible, saying that “if I’m telling these stories to reach a mass audience, then really, nothing else matters.”
The documentary received good reviews and was highly praised for its powerful narration of such important and relevant topics, receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature. It received high scores on various websites, indicating the audience’s positive response with 97% on Rotten Tomatoes and 8.2 on IMDb.
Similarly, the documentary was acclaimed by critics. The New York Times called the documentary “powerful, infuriating [and] electrifying” and underlined the thought-provoking aspect of 13th, which is described as a documentary that “will get your blood boiling.”
However, the reviews were not unanimously positive. Kyle Smith for The New York Post wrote a negative review of the film, claiming that the documentary consists of misinformation and undermines the contributions of civil rights activists. If one looks closely at the thesis exposed in the documentary, 13th does not portray the struggles and achievements of civil rights activists as useless but rather wants to highlight how racism is institutional and structural and, therefore, is constantly perpetrated despite the individual effort to overcome it.
13th situates the biggest challenge in institutional racism, rather than personal actions and interaction, which is what we can call individual racism. Contrary to the latter, institutional or systemic racism operates on a deeper and more subtle level: it is a hidden process, present within important forces of power in our society, such as the process of criminalization and the prison system, as underlined by Ava DuVernay in this documentary.
Its institutional trait makes racism harder to dismantle and identify: it involves admitting the system is, in fact, flawed. Our laws and institutions are not neutral forces untouched by politics but can actively be seen as tools in the hands of whoever is in power, condemning those who are not seen or recognized as true citizens to unfair and unequal treatment under the law. In the words of American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois, “a system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect.”
As Ava DuVernay suggests in her documentary, the system is ultimately flawed and as such, it cannot be repaired from within but needs to be completely rebuilt. In other words, a just and equal system can only exist if we choose to invite a radical change rather than reform one that is already broken, to begin with.
Relevance to today’s situation
In her documentary, Ava DuVernay also reflects on the depiction of dead bodies on screen and more broadly throughout media. Towards the end of the documentary, the focus is shifted to discuss the power of showing such footage on-screen and the visual shock of seeing black people being killed, which forces the audience to pay attention to the issue. Not only that but the presence and circulation of this footage can also be used to hold accountable the perpetrators and get justice.
This can be particularly important in today’s climate. We currently live in a world in which, thanks to the new technologies and how widespread they are, anyone can film police brutality and bring this issue to worldwide attention. This is what happened in 2020 with George Floyd’s murder, which arguably got attention and ultimately justice because of the footage being shown online in both social media and news outlets.
As many have pointed out during the Black Lives Matter protests that followed George Floyd’s murder, police brutality is not something new nor is it becoming more frequent, it is just getting filmed now and, thus, it is getting attention from the general public. Although the spread of such footage may have its positive effects, such as the public outrage that we have witnessed in 2020, Ava DuVernay invites us to reflect on the emotional consequences of showing something so visually shocking for the families of the victims.
Similarly, the documentary examines the implications that this brings in terms of the power that mass media holds in today’s society, a topic that the filmmaker had discussed in her previous feature film Selma as well.
In other words, 13th focuses on the fact that the black body is being used for profit and politics, as Ava DuVernay herself has stated. Throughout the documentary, the filmmaker illustrates her points and her argument very clearly using graphics as well as rap music to make the audience understand that slavery has not simply disappeared but has obtained a new look.
That is something that the documentary does not allow us to forget, something that we can’t forget. If 13th leaves you upset – and it should – it is because we are arguably nowhere closer to solving the problem of institutional racism than we when in 2016 when the documentary was made, despite the wave of protests and outrage that 2020 has seen spread all over the world.