Documentary Analysis: 13th by Ava Duvernay

Documentary Analysis: 13th by Ava Duvernay

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Documentary Analysis: 13th by Ava Duvernay

The documentary, 13th, by Ava Duvernay is an exploration of the extent to which the United States Constitution has assumed a role in the criminalization of persons based on their race. In synopsis, the film utilizes narration as a way of emphasizing the heritage left by the 13th Amendment as well as the institution of slavery in respect to African American communities. The focus of the film on the 13th Amendment is based on one specific caveat that it imposed as far as the black community is concerned. Despite providing former slaves with the capacity to acquire full-fledged citizenship finally, the respective amendment established an exception that would eventually be utilized to illustrate why mass incarceration is prevalent among African Americans as far as Duvernay’s argument is concerned. In essence, the amendment asserted that slavery was prohibited except in situations that involved criminal offenses. As such, black people – if found guilty of a crime – could be enslaved and imprisoned. Over the years, the 13th Amendment has led to the incarceration of black people who presently comprise the highest prison population in the United States.

A look at 13th, especially with the themes that it focuses on, specifically mass incarceration and the plight of the black community, demonstrates that the documentary genuinely attempts to observe the society and its current inhabitants. For Nichols, this particular aspect is a significant attribute of what constitutes a documentary. The assertion is made that, “documentary is not a reproduction of reality, it is a representation of the world we already occupy” (Nichols, 2010, p. 13). 13th abides by the statement in question by focusing on issues that have become somewhat prevalent ever since the current president of the United States, Donald Trump, began his campaigns. While exploring the themes in question, Duvernay manages to illustrate the extent to which Trump’s rallies highlighted racial tensions that once existed before and during the Civil Rights Era between the white majority and African Americans. For instance, exploring the subject of mass incarceration of African Americans, and relating the issue to the implications of the exception above in the 13th Amendment, manages to highlight the racially fragmented society that Americans currently inhabit.

The film’s ability to represent the racialized present that Americans currently inhabit also enables it to apply logic to support and further its argument, which primarily involves the correlation that exists between Donald Trump, white supremacy, and the illumination of black racial discrimination in the present United States. Nichols explores this aspect interestingly by illustrating the way documentaries – based on rationality – establish a specific claim regarding a setting by actually drawing from real historical connections and relationships. Since documentaries allow people to engage with the encompassing context, they are less reliant on continuity editing and more dependent on links that enable them to establish the credible nature of their underlying propositions, claims, assertions, or proposals (Nichols, 2010). In this respect, the documentary manages to show that “things actually share relationships in time and space…because of actual and historical linkages” (Nichols, 2010, p. 23). One of the scenes that abide by this convention involves a fluid combination of footage from Trump’s campaigns and archival footage derived from the Civil Rights period. From the scene, one sees that the violence incited against blacks in the 1960s is eerily similar to the same violence imposed against blacks that attended the president’s campaigns.

Even though the scene in question is an amalgamation of historical and current events, it essentially denotes the way the American society has consistently established obstacles aimed at repressing the African American community. A particular argument that the scene illustrates involves the way criminalization – as an obstacle – constitutes an essential trait of discrimination and prejudice against blacks. The linked footages represent rallies full of vigilante and police attacks against African American activists during the Civil Rights period juxtaposed against rallies and speeches orchestrated by Trump, which contain their share of assaults and attacks against black people. From the scene, 13th manages to assert an underlying assumption which illustrates the recursive temperament of politics that are centered on law and order. Interestingly, the scene in question – accompanied by the commentary as a convention in accordance to Nichols (2010) – support the aim, mission, and framework of current movements such as Black Lives Matter as the most recent appearance of a lengthy struggle against the feature of criminalization and to an extent, discrimination against African Americans.

To this end, Ava Duvernay’s documentary, 13th, explores the pertinent problems that the African American community continues to encounter. Using the 13th Amendment as a basis for her argument, Duvernay manages to weave historical and present events to illustrate the extensive level blacks in the United States struggle against racial discrimination, which seems to inform the institutions of law and order in the country. Furthermore, 13th manages to deliver its underlying argument concerning the present world by deriving information from historical linkages and connections rather than relying on elements applied in fiction such as continuity editing. Even though some of the claims that Duvernay presents have been criticized as erroneous, the disposition of 13th as a documentary is in line with the conditions asserted by Nichols regarding the respective media.


Nichols, B. (2010). Introduction to documentary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

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