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13th is a 2016 documentary feature by Ava DuVernay.

It is a history of the criminal justice system and how it, according to DuVernay, has been used as a tool of oppression against the black people of America. The film starts by noting that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which eliminated slavery in the United States, contained an exception: "except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted". The film then traces the use of the legal system to perpetuate slavery by another name, starting with the "convict leasing" system in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War in which legions of black Americans in the South were convicted of crimes and then rented out as slave laborers. With slavery came the Jim Crow segregation system, in which for a hundred years after the Civil War, blacks were consigned to a permanent underclass status by the force of law.

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The civil rights movement and the federal civil rights laws of the 1960s led to the end of de jure segregation, but that was replaced by the War on Crime and the War on Drugs, which led to a massive increase in the prison population, with black men being targeted far out of proportion to their numbers in society. The film connects this to the prison industrial complex, a network of for-profit prisons and their associated vendors that make untold millions by keeping people in jail, and also notes that prisoners serve as slave labor in the modern day in a very similar manner to the convict leasing of the 19th century.


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Tropes:

  • Art Shift: Animation is used a couple of times to illustrate points, like in the early part of the film where the ratification of the 13th Amendment is dramatized with animation of the stars of the American flag morphing into doves of freedom.
  • Call-Back
    • Footage from The Birth of a Nation, specifically of when a freed slave tries to rape a white woman and is lynched, is used to illustrate how the myth of black sexual violence justified oppression and lynchings, as well as reviving a new Ku Klux Klan. Later, when the film discusses the notorious Willie Horton ad in the 1988 presidential campaign, in which Michael Dukakis was blamed for a black man raping a white woman, the Birth of a Nation clip is shown again.
    • The portion of the film that deals with the civil rights movement shows stock footage of white Southerners roughing up and shoving black men and women trying to end segregation. Towards the end of the film, clips of Donald Trump encouraging violence at his rallies are matched up with the same stock footage from the 1960s, including a Match Cut of a white man shoving a black man in 1960s Alabama to a Trump supporter shoving a black protester at a 2016 Trump rally.
  • Documentary: Of the history of the American prison-industrial complex and how it has been used as a tool to oppress American blacks, as well as make a lot of money.
  • Fan Disservice: A segment dealing with human rights abuses in American prisons includes a brief clip of prison guards with dogs assaulting two naked black men as they lie prone on the floor.
  • The Ken Burns Effect: Used for most of the still pictures in the film, starting with a dramatic zoom-in on pictures of freed slaves as the movie discusses how "convict leasing" became a substitute for chattel slavery in the postbellum South.
  • Scare Campaign: One segment of the film recounts the history of the notorious 1988 Willie Horton ad, a political attack ad in which a scary-looking mug shot of William Horton (calling him "Willie" was part of the dog whistle) was used to stoke fears of black crime and scare swing voters into supporting George W. Bush.
  • Stock Footage: The bulk of the movie, from footage of civil rights protests to human rights abuses in jail to the murders of Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice and Philando Castile.
  • Talking Heads: Many interviews with a series of historians, commentators, and activists. DuVernay almost never has an interviewee look straight at a camera; almost all the talking heads are shot from an angle or a distance or both, sometimes in full profile.
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