AWFJ Movie of the Week, January 13 – January 20, 2017: 13TH

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13Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13TH was the first nonfiction film to open the New York Film Festival. The film has gone on to garner numerous prizes and is currently shortlisted for the Academy Awards.

The 13th amendment provides a point of departure, but the film is far more than investigation of mass incarceration in the US. It is a history lesson, a cinema essay and cogent and irrefutable indictment of the economic and cultural policies that are the enduring legacy of slavery.

Nixon may have started the ball rolling, while Ronald Reagan carried it further, but it was Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill that truly created the infrastructure necessary to the current prison-industrial complex. At the heart of many of these different policies, be it the war on drugs or the three strikes law, was economics. The need for a cheap and controllable workforce was supplied by incarcerating people of colour at an unprecedented rate. (Prison populations soared from 357,292 in 1970 to 2,306,200 in 2014.) The loophole embedded in the 13th amendment — “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,” — also effectively removed the right to vote for anyone convicted of a crime. A fact handily summed up in the film by Killer Mike’s hip-hop anthem Reagan.

One of the most critical ideas examined in the film is the power and role of media in helping to shape and foster public opinion. Beginning with D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, DuVernay uncovers the ways in which television, film and more recently social media have been employed on both sides of the racial struggle. Images of water cannons, truncheons and police dogs turned on peaceful protestors galvanized the nation during the Civil Rights Movement. As cell phone videos on YouTube replaced television news, incidents of police violence have taken on global reach and impact.

Documentary cinema in the hands of a gifted storyteller like Ms. DuVernay is more than a polemic, but a means to offer up another, infinitely more complex narrative. The film builds its case in clear and unassailable statistics, as well as interviews with activists and politicians including Melina Abdullah, Michelle Alexander, Cory Booker, Dolores Canales, Gina Clayton, Jelani Cobb, Malkia Cyril, Angela Davis, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Lisa Graves, and Van Jones.

Ferociously intelligent, rigorous and impassioned, DuVernay’s film is a battle cry for democracy, and a raging demand for change. It could not have come at a more critical point in time, as the President-elect appears ready to enshrine hatred, greed and corruption into the very heart of the Oval Office.


Candice Frederick:  A film especially timely as we approach a Donald Trump presidency, DuVernay underscores the blatant yet rarely discussed clause within the 13th amendment of the Constitution. Read full review.

Thelma Adams: Ava DuVernay’s 13TH is essential viewing on the history of racism in America – and how the warehousing of black men in contemporary corporate prisons is rooted in the slavery of the past.

Pam Grady: The prison industrial complex and its cost to the Black community are put into historical, political, and social context in Ava DuVernay’s riveting documentary that explains in stunning detail how a single phrase in the 13th amendment that freed the slaves also created new shackles.

Nell Minow: This fierce and fearless documentary is so brilliantly constructed that its message is inspiring as well as infuriating.

Jennifer Merin: Ava DuVernay brings to bear all of her cinematic and storytelling skills to wrap a thoroughly researched investigation into a most compelling documentary about the long lasting but little known effects of 13th Amendment. A must see film that reveals a lot about how we got to where we are today.

Liz Whittemore:  The 13TH is an extraordinarily timely look into the prison industrial complex from its very beginning to today. With chilling historical juxtaposition from our past to the final weeks of this year’s unprecedented election season circus, it is an eye-opening, fact filled journey through racism and the division of power in our nation. Now streaming on Netflix, the access to a doc of this caliber could not be more convenient. Including intimate sit down interviews with some of the most influential activists and journalists of our time, 13TH will echo in your brain long after the credits roll. It should inspire you to take action.  


Title: 13TH

Director: Ava DuVernay

Release Date: September 30, 2016

Running Time: 100 minutes

Language: English

Principal Cast: Melina Abdullah, Michelle Alexander, Cory Booker, Dolores Canales, Gina Clayton, Jelani Cobb, Malkia Cyril, Angela Davis, Craig DeRoche, David Dinkins, Baz Dreisinger, Kevin Gannon, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Newt Gingrich, Lisa Graves, Van Jones.

Screenwriter:  Ava DuVernay, Spencer Averick

Production Companies: Kandoo Films

Distributor: Netflix

Official Site Link

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Thelma Adams, Nikki Baughan, Anne Brodie, Candice Frederick, Pam Grady, Leba Hertz, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Perri Nemiroff, Liz Whittemore, Jeanne Wolf

Other Movies Opening the Week of January 13, 2017 to January 20, 2017

Written by Dorothy Woodend. Edited by Jennifer Merin. Social Media by Sandra Kraisirideja

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Dorothy Woodend

Dorothy Woodend has been the film critic for The Tyee since 2004. Her work has been published in magazines, newspapers and books across Canada and the US, as well as a number of international publications. Dorothy is also the Senior Festival Advisor for DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver.