13th (2016)

TV-MA   |    |  Documentary, Crime


13th (2016) Poster

An in-depth look at the prison system in the United States and how it reveals the nation's history of racial inequality.


8.3/10
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  • Michelle Alexander in 13th (2016)
  • Van Jones in 13th (2016)
  • 13th (2016)
  • 13th (2016)
  • Newt Gingrich and Ava DuVernay in 13th (2016)
  • 13th (2016)

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Cast & Crew

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Director:

Ava DuVernay

Writers:

Spencer Averick, Ava DuVernay

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30 December 2016 | demented_peruvian
7
| Interesting points and questions, but incomplete
It appears that all reviews of this documentary are in turn reviewed by where people stand politically. I'll side-step that by analyzing this as a film lover who is multi-ethnic and has studied criminology and has worked for many years in the behavioral health system, including rehabilitation and diversion of people entering the judicial system, of all races and social classes. And so it goes...

"13th" or "The 13th" does well in cinematic sense with an interesting photography of the subjects it interviews, and very effective editing. Its juxtapositions of past and present work well for film purposes, although some may object to the sociopolitical comparisons. What was ineffective and annoying was the use of sudden words quite often going into the screen, including the occasional song lyric, not all of which felt like it matched. It often felt like it was there to pad time, which is odd given the wide range of subjects that were interviewed who likely had more to say. That stole from the experience for me, akin to complaints that I've read others make of other documentaries that have done this, e.g. "Nico Icon". As a whole, the narrative starts off potent but loses some traction about 2/3rds through, similar to how I felt about DuVernay's "Selma".

From the criminal justice and political aspect, "13th" does best when it sticks to its thesis: that politicians created a system of mass incarceration for dubious reasons, which are rooted in racism and intentional disenfranchisement, and which is possibly influenced by businesses that make a profit from running prisons and using prisoners as a cheap or free workforce. Yes, it is a long run-on sentence, but that's the thesis. It supports itself well when analyzing politics, and the intentional and unintentional consequences. It alternates between stating one side of a debate as fact (e.g. whether Woodrow Wilson endorsed "Birth of a Nation") and having people who represent both sides of the debate. Regardless, it achieves its effect of a plausible theory, while eliciting horror, anger, and disgust. It is less well supported when exploring the link of current companies that stand to gain from imprisonment. They clearly document that they lobby to expand their business opportunities, including some highly questionable attempts and an inappropriate role in writing laws, but it's less clear that they are a driving force behind the incarcerations. It doesn't help when they use some gross generalizations, e.g. that Aramark sells rotten food. I've seen Aramark serve their generic, fattening cafeteria food to dozens of institutions, and it is never rotten, as in those two awful instances. However, DuVernay does raise an effective alert of a potential threat, that at the very least leaves us questioning the role of commercialization/privatization of the criminal justice system.

She is less successful when she goes off course into tying in Black Lives Matter; it didn't really fit the main narrative, but more of a sub-narrative of law and order being altered by racism. This deserves a larger, longer, more careful focus, as it brings in much debated situations that are too recent, some brought in too briefly. "OJ: Made in America" addresses this sub-topic better, using a greater length.

But as much as DuVernay puts into the film to explore how incarcerations increased, she misses many factors. Racism, explosion in population in the post-war era, political machinations, and introduction of drugs and drug laws are all mentioned. She somehow leaves out the increase in availability in firearms, the development of gangs (ironic, as the Bloods and the Mara Salvatrucha started in US prisons), and a sharp increase in a pro-crime, narcissistic sub-cultures. This is not limited to one racial/ethnic group or socioeconomic group, nor is it recent. But 90s-on gangsta culture has driven in hard a message that life is short; you need to blow massive amounts of money in narcissistic displays of it; that decent jobs will not get you there, that stealing, dealing, grifting and boosting are the only ways; that going to prison is good and inevitable; and that the slightest challenge to your being the center of the universe should be responded to with violence. This culture, when it is bought into by anyone of any group, is the hardest thing to deal with when trying to rehabilitate someone, second only to an abusive family. And I've seen it with white kids from wealthy families, 2nd generation Latinos with hardworking parents with different values and culture, African-American kids with extremely hardworking parents who reject this message, and adults who should know much better. And it is now being exported overseas, with the same result of increased incarceration and police violence. Why skip this? Why not question it as well? DuVernay's thesis suggests that almost everyone in the criminal justice system are only there because of petty drug charges, but she fails to test the null hypothesis. While this is true of a segment of prisoners, it does not apply to all. I bring it up because more than half of felons and people otherwise with repeat criminal justice involvement that I have encountered (of all races) have charges for multiple crimes; it is not just simple possession, or dealing small amounts of lesser drugs, but additional crimes such as those around theft, sudden acts of aggression, forgery, or driving while intoxicated. Are African Americans more exposed to drug crime in general, due to the same factors she lists? And what are the alternatives to incarceration? DuVernay also regrettably skips probing rehabilitation and probation, other than to briefly question the latter as over-done and possibly driven by profit.

In sum, good for discussion of political issues, but not comprehensive in criminology issues.

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