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Why '13th' by Ava DuVernay is an essential film on Black history


In the whole history of cinema, the industry hasn’t seen a shift of representation as significant as the progress of the past decade, with black creatives, as well as female filmmakers, finally being recognised for their contributions to cinema. Announcing in 2020 that they have doubled their number of female members from 1,446 to 3,179 and has tripled their members of colour from 554 to 1,787, the American Academy is trying to lead from the front on this matter, having been accused of institutional racism for generations. 

This institutional ‘change’, as described, was sparked by the tragic death of Trayvon Martin in 2013, which in turn led to the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement that began demanding improved rights for black people and creatives across all areas of contemporary society. This movement gained further popularity seven years later, after the horrific murder of George Floyd at the hands of shocking police violence, a significant event that rightfully rocked the foundations of modern life. 

It was during this tumultuous period of social unrest that Ava DuVernay’s urgent documentary about racism in contemporary America, 13th, experienced a surge in viewership, increasing by 4,665% in June 2020, during the time of the Black Lives Matter protests. Released in 2016, as an educational documentary as well as a response to the murder of Trayvon Martin, DuVernay’s film exposed several shameful scars of national history, demonstrating how the violence of the past has morphed into the racism of contemporary America. 

Concerning itself with the inequality of the prison system of the United States whilst revealing how it is emblematic of the country’s historic racism, DuVernay creates an essential text on the matter that well summarises the context of the nation’s history whilst providing solutions to long-established prejudices. Making connections that had not yet been publicised before in modern America, 13th creates a dialogue for the voiceless prisoners of the nation, creating debate in an area few people had thought to look. 

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Contending that the 13th amendment of the United States, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude (except as punishment for a crime), is being disrearded by the judiciary system, DuVernay creates a compelling argument seeking a rounded opinion from a range of historical experts. Drawing attention to ‘the war on drugs’ that weighed heavily on black minorities throughout the 1970s, as well as the mass incineration of people of colour, 13th creates a comprehensive case, punctuated by stark facts such as black men making up 40.2% of the U.S. prison population, despite representing just 6.5% of the U.S population.

From explaining the country’s troubled relationship with racism to demonstrating how private companies now profit from mass incarceration, DuVernay creates an urgent dialogue, highlighting the fact that the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.

In a time of such radical sociological change, Ava DuVernay’s film remains a crucial documentary on the matter, forcing itself on contemporary society as a mandatory piece of viewing that excellently contextualises and methodically explains the racism that remains embedded in modern life.