1001 Films – The 13th (2016)

13thAn in-depth look at the prison system in the United States and how it reveals the nation’s history of racial inequality.

Brief Thoughts

Before: It seems fitting that after last week’s film about a jury room that this week’s film is a documentary about the American prison system

After: Well damn. I knew parts of this history but I’ve never seen it as a straight line of cause and effect from slavery to where the land of the free has 25% of the worlds prison population and 42% of them are black men.

Due to the subject matter and the fact this is a documentary my discussions of ‘plot’ and ‘character’ last week are not suitable here.


I watched the interview with Oprah and Ava DuVernay (the director) about where the idea started and how it grew into the finished article. She said it started with looking at the line in the 13th amendment which says that that slavery is illegal, unless they are imprisoned. 97% of the people in prison have never had a trial, which is insane. It is literally insane. I have no clue how you reach that point – except I do now because I watched this; it’s by criminalising drug addiction, giving people the option of a plea bargain and punishing those who want to take it to trial, by setting the bail at a level that people can’t reach, and by treating the drugs differently depending on what class of people use them. Crack cocaine and ‘normal’ cocaine have been treated differently and -of course – its the one that the lower classes can afford/take that is treated worse and automatically gives a longer sentence.

The documentary focuses on the way that the black people are treated differently and demonised in America. It starts at what should have been the moment where the differences disappeared. When the 13th amendment was written into the US constitution, December 1865. However the amendment has a loophole, one that has continued to be exploited.
I really like that it started at the beginning that wasn’t an ending, it moves on to looking how media demonised black men by constantly showing them as criminals and rapists, words that Trump about Mexicans. The stats showed that most rapes and GBH were done by white men against black women but if you looked at what was being published in the papers you wouldn’t have known that. If you are told something enough times you’re more likely to believe it about others and also about yourself.

The documentary has multiple experts on various subjects, but importantly it has experts and people on both sides of the American political debate. There’s a discussion about donations made to political parties and the power that those brands and groups then have to make changes to laws. In that part of the documentary they have the head of one of those groups and not in a way to make him sound ineffectual. It would be easy to shrug it off and say that they were included, but they are taken seriously and allowed to have their say and their right to reply.

Every documentary maker goes in with a story to tell and their own biases that they are trying to back, but by having people on all sides of the argument looking at the facts from history as well as what is happening now you get a rounded conversation. There is no doubt that people of colour are at a disadvantage, that they might not be actively discriminated in law but the system that gave them ‘equality’ also did everything it could to protect the white male and to convince you that blacks were just more likely to be a criminal. Which is clearly BS. There’s more black people in jail but that’s because white people are more likely to be let go with a slap on a wrist, and they can pay the fine.

This is a really documentary to follow but this one has a clear start, middle, and end. It’s a difficult subject but the people on it clearly know what they are talking about.


It’s easy to understand why this documentary was nominated and won best music awards. It’s all music by black artists and about the prison system, police aggression, and the Black Lives Matter movement.
In-between each decade and section of the documentary there is part of a song and the lyrics up on screen. It emphasises the words and the emotions behind them, the anger and the hurt, but also the hope.


BAFTAS: WINNER- Best documentary
Oscars: WINNER- Best documentary
Emmys: WINNER- Outstanding documentary or non-fiction film, Outstanding original music, outstanding non-fiction writing.
NOMINEE- Outstanding directing for non-fiction, outstanding cinematography for non-fiction, outstanding picture editing for non-fiction, outstanding sound mixing for non-fiction, outstanding sound editing for non-fiction.

Did I enjoy it? The subject matter makes it impossible to ‘enjoy’, but I liked seeing people on both sides of the political argument discuss the mistakes that have been made and how the system has historically set people up to fail.
Am I glad I watched it? I am VERY glad I’ve seen this documentary, and would definitely recommend it to everyone. It’s difficult to watch but it’s powerful
Would I watch again? Not for a long time, but yes. I think it’s an important enough documentary that I probably will watch it again.
Would I have watched it if not for this challenge? Sad answer – no I probably wouldn’t have done. And I hate myself for that a little bit.


So far I’m 2/2 for films that I hadn’t seen/wouldn’t have seen if not for this project. And 2/2 for films that I would have been missing out on and will probably watch again.



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