Ava du Vernay. Production: Howard BarishAva DuVernaySpencer Averick

USA, 2016, 100 min.

The Thirteenth Amendment to the American Constitution (1864): ‘abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime.’ This last part is what the Netflix documentary 13TH is about: how black citizens have been criminalised after the abolition of slavery to alternatively provide a workforce. In particular, the Southern states saw their economy collapse following their labourers awarded their freedom. This ‘loophole’ in the amendment, as one of the interviewees deems it, has been exploited ever since, to fill the void.

The film takes us from 1864 to 1915, when Birth of a Nation not only wrote cinema history, but also political history, stimulating a revival of the KKK. The film speaks of Jim Crow and the introduction of racial segregation legislation. It then fast forwards to the 1960s and the Human Rights movements of Dr. King, and on to the 1970s and its mass incarcerations. Only 15 minutes into this 100-minute film, we have seen eight, mostly nameless, interviewees and covered about a century of policies in a whirlwind of talking heads, archive footage and animation.


The film features many experts, scholars and activists, who all share their knowledge – not necessarily their experiences. Filmed in large empty spaces and often placed in a corner of the frame, they recount the history of policies related to crime, incarceration, punishment, criminal acts, drugs, law and order, as well as the American prison industrial complex that has affected blacks and Latinos disproportionately. The multi-camera interviews are interwoven into one narrative that leaves no room for individual accounts. The interviewees are completely employed to construct the argument.

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