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Ava DuVernay's Documentary: 13th, an Analysis

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 1646 words Published: 4th Sep 2017

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13th Documentary Close Reading Analysis

In the mid-1960s, Malcolm X said, “If you stick a knife nine inches into my back and pull it out three inches, that it not progress. Even if you pull it all the way out, that is not progress. Progress is healing the wound, and America hasn’t even begun to pull out the knife.” And, to this day, Malcolm X’s words are just as salient and prophetic as they were during the Civil Rights Era. The exigent problem that American society recognizes but refuses to acknowledge is that black people have and continue to be excluded from the so-called white American humanity. Some Americans could argue that the 13th amendment left an encouraging and indelible impression on the racial fabric of American society. There is a historical and prevalent notion that America prides and extols herself in her pursuit for equality and justice. Furthermore, America worships herself on the alters of democracy, justice and equality. American patriots said that black people should be grateful for the 13th amendment. But, the problem, like an ominous shadow, remains. American patriots said that they acknowledged the error of their ways and consequently conferred former black slaves with the 14th and 15th amendments; yet, the exigent issue remains. American patriots told black people to show some gratitude for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and yet, the problem akin to an individual who tirelessly struggles to extricate himself from the invisible shackles, remains. Though some could argue that the passing of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 reflect the racial progress of America, I would argue that these same laws that sought to include black people into humanity reflects white American society’s estrangement and vehement opposition towards humanity. Furthermore, these amendments have also represented the painful struggle of black people’s quest to become legally human. In Ava DuVernay’s documentary, 13th, the use of storytelling is used to accent the reality that the legacies of the 13th amendment and slavery are still very visible in black communities. The storytelling in the documentary is didactic in form, and this didacticism is ultimately used to expose the reality that the further white America runs from the truth, the sooner the truth will find her.

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The use of storytelling in the DuVernay’s documentary is used to illustrate the legacies of slavery and the 13th amendment. According to the documentary, from Nixon’s time as president to the present, the war on drugs has become more insidious and more lethal. During his presidency, Nixon tacitly said that the black population was a menace to society. Thus, Nixon created a system that exclusively targeted black people without explicitly expressing the underlying motivations and inspiration of an unjust criminal system. Instead of a war on black people, Nixon proposed a war on drugs. During Regan’s presidency, the war on drugs was consecrated. Throughout time, ‘this war on drugs’ became more insidious and was born and reborn throughout various presidencies. To this day, the war on drugs is a war on black people. However, the primary users of illegal drugs are middle-class white people (Knafo, 2013). Interestingly, America’s illegal drug trade is a $151 billion-dollar industry (Knafo, 2013). Given the poverty and structural inequality in black communities, black people from urban settings such as the south side of Chicago, East Orange, New Jersey, or Compton, California are not the primary beneficiaries of this prominent industry. Through this, we witness the way state and federal governments use drugs to imprison black people. In turn, black people’s imprisonment has become a private venture. However, this is not a novel occurrence. There have been historical primordial forces that have contributed to the current racial inequalities and criminal injustices. Many American patriots view the 13th amendment as one of the most significant milestones in the history of America. Though the 13th amendment seemingly established all former slaves to legal human status, there was a caveat in the clause: “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 place subject to their jurisdiction” (DuVernay, 2016). In essence, slavery was illegal except for those who committed a criminal offense, which means a black person can be re-enslaved. Before the 13th Amendment, most convicts in prisons were white people. However, after the 13th amendment, most prisoners were black people. In addition, these former slaves were imprisoned and fined for petty theft, vagabondage and lack of keeping a steady job (DuVernay). If black people could not pay the fines, some were sold to mining and timber companies whilst others were sold back to the southern plantations that they worked on before the passing of the 13th Amendment. Under the convict lease program, prisoners were forced to work in deplorable conditions and many convicts died from disease and abuse. In time, the convict lease program gave birth to chain gangs, in which black prisoners were chained together whilst undergoing laborious and menial work, effectively reinforcing and perpetrating the enslavement of black males (“Slavery by Another Name,” PBS). During the 1950’s, American society gradually illegalized chain gangs (“Slavery by Another Name,” PBS). Thus, American society forgot of the criminal injustices of the ancient past. The role of storytelling can be used to look at the current war on drugs and reflect on its historical utility in assuaging the conscience of white America. According to the documentary, the imprisonment sentence for the possession of crack cocaine is approximately 100 times more grievous than the sentence for the possession of powdered cocaine. Not only does the use of storytelling reveal the lineage of the 13th amendment, from convict leasing, to chain gangs, and ultimately to the epidemic of the prison industrial complex, but it also reveals that the legacies of slavery and the 13th amendment are still very visible in black communities today.

In the documentary, the storytelling is didactic in form. Through this narrative storytelling, it seeks to re-educate American society, and challenge white America’s notions of democracy, justice and equality. Malcom X aptly said, “History is a people’s memory, and without memory, man is demoted to the lower animals.” I would argue that the didactic nature of the storytelling serves not only to educate, but to challenge white America. Furthermore, the instructive lessons of history that are characterized in this storytelling serves as a plea for America to wake up, and for America to claim the humanity that it has historically abandoned. In the early 1900s, it was common for southern whites to imprison black people in zoos for the general public’s entertainment and satisfaction (ABS Staff). In addition, mothers would pull their children out of school to witness the exhibition of black mothers, fathers and small children in zoos. The exhibition of black people in zoos was a deliberate action in characterizing black people as members of a criminal, savage, and suspicious race. In essence, these human zoo exhibitions sought to represent black people as innately primitive, brutish and uncivilized. Though, some may now say that we do not commit such unspeakable atrocities, I would argue that the past informs the present. In the documentary, contributors described the media promotion of imprisoned black people as innately primitive, unhinged, amoral, and dehumanized beings. Though, we may not throw bread crumbs to African-American male prisoners, we still throw proverbial bread crumbs, when the media exploits black male’s humanities.  With the use of didacticism in storytelling, the narrative presented in the story seeks to re-educate, eradicate the amnesia of American society, and ultimately reveal the haunting reality: the further white America runs from truth, the sooner it will find her.

In Ava Duverney’s documentary, 13th, the use of storytelling is used to accent the reality that the legacies of the 13th amendment and slavery are still very visible in black communities. The storytelling in the documentary is didactic in form, and this didacticism is ultimately used to expose the reality that the further America runs from truth the sooner it finds her. In both content and form, this documentary sought to educate, inspire, confront, challenge, and expose the legacies of the 13th amendment in hopes that white American society will begin to humanize herself.

Works Cited

13th. Dir. Ava  DuVernay. 13th. Netflix, 7 Oct. 2016. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.

“Chain Gangs.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2017.

Knafo, Saki. “When It Comes To Illegal Drug Use, White America Does The Crime, Black America Gets The Time.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 17 Sept. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2017.

Staff, ABS. “13 Shameful Pictures of Europeans Placing African People in Human Zoos.” Atlanta Black Star. N.p., 29 Dec. 2016. Web. 13 Mar. 2017.


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