Movie Review: “ 13th ” – A Solemn Message

Written by Matt Butler November 11, 2016

screen-shot-2016-11-10-at-7-32-19-pmNeither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.

The 13th Amendment promised an immediate and sweeping departure from an age of intolerance and subjugation. What it delivered was hypocrisy. It’s certainly encouraging to believe our war on racism is an upward climb, moving closer and closer to a foreseeable close. But Ava Duvernay’s 13th tells it like it is: the war is far from over.

The politicians and industries who strengthen perceived associations with criminality and colour. The social dialogue that is formed. The rise in incarcerations. Rinse and repeat, generation after generation. 13th is a first-class textbook on racial issues. Every second adds another piece to the argument, and every minute adds another layer of dread. Reverberations of shame that I haven’t felt since Schindler’s List.

The film moves in chronological order, starting from the inception of the 13th Amendment, analyzing the consequences decade by decade. Where everything really kicks off, it seems anyway, is with D.W. Griffith’s The Birth Of A Nation. Any film major has some academic familiarity with the 1915 film that was praised for pushing narrative cinematography forward, and condemned for pushing race relations backward. While the 13th Amendment saw the inception of the Southern Strategy, The Birth Of A Nation fanned the flames.

1 out of 4 human beings with their hands on bars, shackled, in the world, are locked up here in the land of the free.

The backbone to all of this is that only maybe 5% of 13th can be labeled ‘expose’. The rest is well-documented history. Dozens of professionals (academic, first-hand, POC, white) throw their piece in. Every sentiment, every testament, every piece fits dauntingly into a terrifying image, a United States ultimately divided. People housed more in prisons than in homes. All because of a skin pigmentation.


What’s astonishing though is that both Donald Drumpf and Hillary Clinton are only secondary points in 13th’s statements. I had expected, based on promotional materials, that Drumpf’s candidacy would be the central target for the film, but he’s more of an afterthought, a staple in the “It’s as bad as it was before” argument. While it’s hard to tell based on the clips of him if he was referring to African Americans or not, Duvernay is clearly using this as a premonition of history repeating itself. Or rather, things continuing as badly as they always have.

It was an enormous burden on the black community, but it also violated a sense of court fairness.

By the end of it, you’re hoping for a ‘better to light a candle than curse the darkness’ sentiment, but the sentiment given is rightly fleeting. The best thing to come out of this generation for racial tensions is social media. Now we have immediate and unfettered witnessing of injustice. Still, the film concludes with an appropriately sobering feeling: There is much work to be done.


As you can see, it’s not easy to talk about 13th without vehemence. But much like Into the Inferno, the fiery rage of the subject is not akin to the discourse. 13th is powerful because it is organized. It wisely chooses to tell its tragic true story chronologically, and it’s the most accumulative account of racial criminalization you can find for a minus two-hour feature.

My Rating: 9.5/10



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About Matt Butler

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is a strapping young English Major with a fiery passion for the art of cinematic storytelling. He likes long walks on the beach and knows the proper use of 'your' and 'you're'. (Example: I hope YOU'RE having a wonderful time browsing our site, and I hope you enjoy YOUR time reading my film reviews. I wrote them just for you.)

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