Documentary Review Week: 13th

Documentaries at their worse can still inform an audience, however it can take a great one to create social and political change and attitudes.
One key example is Blackfish, a film concerning the controversial matter of the treatment of Orca at Sea World and the deaths of their trainers. The film deterred many from visiting Sea World again causing Sea World to lose huge amount of revenue, but more importantly it ended Orca captivity on Sea World sites in America.
The 13th however has bigger fish to fry.

The 13th amendment was created to abolish slavery in America which everyone can agree is a good thing, however there is an exception: Slavery is illegal unless given as punishment for crime. So has slavery really been abolished?

The film acts like it’s own curated timeline as Ava DuVernay broadens her scope to analyse the years of subjugation of African American people from the implementation of the 13th amendment right up to present day, which is a large amount of history to cover and a lot of information to consider. It turns out that the 13th amendment sounded great on paper, but in reality it merely gave slaves a change of name: prisoners, because a piece of paper wouldn’t be enough to eradicate the rampant amount of racism alive and kicking in the late 19th century, DuVernay argues that this may still be the case.

Many civil rights activists, politicians and experts are shown here as interviewees and they put across a very compelling case for the existence of a societal negative bias against African Americans due to government and cultural oppression. Hearing from people who have been victims of racism and oppression first hand really enhanced the message being given, though I do wish that the film had a more broader range of interviewees to be able to hear the other side of the story, though it’s easy to assume that potential right wing conservative interviewees would look pretty silly trying to argue for penal labor like one man does when trying to defend corporation prison legislation which is swiftly picked apart by an opposing left liberal interviewee.

Statistics, quotes and information is presented attractively and easy to understand, the use of real footage and the use of socially challenging hip hop intervals do well to break up the flow of accounts and information. A lot of the interviews are shot in appealing locales as the camera pans around the person always allowing the shot to keep the viewers attention.

The focus may slip on a number of occasions as there are so many bases to cover. What started off as a documentary about penal labor in the jailing system just about hits every single concern and issue regarding African Americans in today’s America. This does make the film more important and relevant to today’s society, and some of the sheer facts of the judicial system in America is shocking, but in the end the main message of essentially prison slavery is left on the side lines.

However this doesn’t change the fact that 13th is a hard hitting wake up call for all Americans and it’s hugely effective at displaying the ills that plague the African American population on a whole. I’m not sure it will win best picture at this years oscars but I won’t be disappointed if it does.

13th – 8/10


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