Ava DuVernay’s “13th” (2016) and Reel Black History

Ava DuVernay’s 13th (2016) is an excellent Netflix’s documentary. It explores the long history of the many disastrous consequences for Black people that have resulted from the loophole in the 13th Amendment and examines the desire by many White people to perpetually exploit Whiteness and White privilege. 

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, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

What follow are some of the most important and interesting points in DuVernay’s 13th – hopefully these inspire you to watch the film! 

Ironically, while the 13th Amendment outlawed enslavement, it made it more legal than ever before. This amendment changed Black people from being “slaves” to being “convicts” and then “felons.” 

Immediately following “abolition,” convict leasing (or as I call it neo-enslavement or re-enslavement), segregation, and lynching were used by White people to control and kill Black people. As segregation was “abolished,” White politicians created “law and order” policies that were specifically designed to target and imprison Black people, mainly Black men. People who are in prison are legally slaves – many of these men, the vast majority People of Color, live worse than cats and dogs.

Court room and legal dramas on televisions are designed to indoctrinate White people into fully believing that “criminals” are dangerous and are treated fairly. The shows do not show that most people are denied the right to a trial, if they get a trial they are punished more than if they took a plea bargain, and thousands are deliberately charged with crimes they did not and could not have committed – they are accused as a way to control them and to make money.

Once accused, it is never over. There are over 40,000 consequences for people accused of a crime. At least 1 out of every 3 Black men will be incarcerated in their lifetime. 

Currently, we are hearing calls for prison reform and 13th warns that we need to be prepared for the next major political system that will be used to keep Black people and other people of Color in chains.

DuVernay’s 13th argues again and again that in order to understand United States History, racism must be a central focus. It explains how that laws in the United States do not have safety and equality in mind, but rather, laws are designed to extend profits for the super rich and perpetuate racism and inequality for non-Whites.

DuVernay’s commentators (who include Michelle Alexander and a dozen others) discuss D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and its role in reflecting and shaping popular discourses, Emmett Till and his mother, Angela Davis, and many others, including Trayvon Martin. It has thought-provoking music by Nina Simone and more contemporary artists interwoven between the various sections, as well as countless visuals, of course. 

This film is ideal for those who care about social justice, who want to hear the Black family, and who do not have a solid background in these topics. I highly recommend it. This film falls within my areas of speciality, and I have zero criticisms for how it presents the past. Its information is solidly accurate. It combines over a century of history into a solid, compact, compelling account and gives voice to Black men and Black women.

Let me know what you think about DuVernay’s 13th! 🙂 

Andrew Joseph Pegoda 



Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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4 replies

  1. For you to be so impressed speaks well of the film.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sorry for the long post, but there are several thought trails that are strongly linked to the one you started.

    I have been thinking a lot about how we treat those living in poverty. In fact, I have come to the conclusion that Texas wants to get rid of the poor, not by helping them, but by killing them off. Many of the rules for obtaining social services are devised to make sure that those who are disabled cannot receive these services, and so will die earlier.

    Since most blacks, after the 13th amendment was passed, as well as before, lived in poverty, one could say that much of what is called racism is also suspicion toward those living in poverty. It has been shown in research over the past 10 years that the poor are most likely to be accused of a crime, most likely to be prosecuted, most likely to not be able to pay bail, most likely to be jailed because of this inability, and because they are most likely to be jailed, are also most likely to be convicted.

    I also suggest they cannot afford a good lawyer, either, and that single characteristic is going to lead prosecutors to accuse them. It is in the latter’s interest to get a fast conviction. They are not going to prosecute someone who is very likely to hire a good lawyer simply because it would be easier to convict a poor person, even if innocent. (I seriously doubt that the Justice Dept. would have let Hillary off so quickly if she had been poor and could not be able to hire a good lawyer. Note how no one asked the director if he had even a flicker of thought of that at all in his decision). We hear of many stories of people wrongly convicted because the justice system everywhere wants to try the person they can most easily convict, despite knowing that someone else actually committed the crime.

    How all this relates to the problem of possible racism could be explained this way. Whites make up the majority of those living in poverty. However, the percentage of whites living in poverty, of all whites, is far less than the percentage of poor blacks (I think I heard that 30% of all blacks live in poverty vs something like 13% of whites). So at least a part of the racism issue is one of economic status, rather than color of skin. Although, one can argue, many economic measures are clearly done to keep blacks in poverty.

    Then there is the problem of implicit racism. NPR did a really good explanation of it, giving really good arguments for how much we need to discuss it (http://www.npr.org/2016/10/17/498219482/how-the-concept-of-implicit-bias-came-into-being). There is a very important aspect to implicit bias that was not considered in that report and should be.

    My feeling is that implicit bias really is built into our brains, not for bad reasons but for good reasons. What makes us biased is the combination of two processes involved in memory storage: categorization, and emotional weight/priority. The latter is particularly important for decision-making. Antonio Damasio made a really good argument for this aspect in his book ‘Descarte’s Error.’

    Categorization is one of the most important functions of the hippocampus, the structure people say is important for short-term memory, a description does not do justice to the center’s activities, however. The hippocampus is more of a “sorting table,” analagous to one used to sort laundry. It takes all parts of a memory that come in at the same time, e.g. all sensations, actions, people, places, objects, ideas, and emotions used in that memorable event and sorts them, to send these parts off to long-term memory depots devoted to that sensation, person, place… etc. When you recall a memory, you pull together as many of the parts as needed to help you consciously remember the event. But obviously, you won’t recall the parts not essential to the task at hand, e.g. you don’t tell the police about what kind of clothing you wore and how it felt against your skin. Unfortunately, color of skin becomes increasingly important to you as you grow up. Little kids seem oblivious to differences until they are pointed out to them.

    Emotional weight to a memory is extremely important because we are able to avoid danger when we remember the emotion we felt associated with a past, relevant, and clearly associated memory to any similar situation in the present. It is clearly adaptive to be revved up for danger if the new situation shares a lot of the same characteristics to one where we escaped danger in the past.

    But clearly there is a down side to it.

    As I have posted elsewhere, maybe we all would just be better citizens if we just realized that we have implicit bias, openly own up to it, and will always have it, but are willing to go with the actions of those with “better angels” who suggest a different response than the one we might be so quick to use. In that process, we learn how to alter our own modes of bias to lessen their bad impact and increase the good impact they may have on the behavior of others. The burden falls on those without the bias to act to alter the effects from those who have the bias. Humans are the social species in the extreme, aren’t they? Shouldn’t they be able to evolve social mechanisms that would reduce the bad effects of bias from one or more individuals in a group? Anthropologists have documented this process over and over again in other cultures, so it is not impossible to achieve in ours.

    Liked by 1 person

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