Weekend Watch: Ava DuVernay’s Historic Documentary, “13th”

We’re taking a moment for a history refresher with Ava DuVernay’s masterful documentary, which is as much a chronicle of the Black experience in America as a call to action for change

Image: Neflix

“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.”
– 13th Amendment, Constitution of the United States of America

The clause between those two commas – “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” – is where Ava DuVernay spends about an hour and forty minutes, taking the viewer from the earliest days of American slavery up to the present day, showing how slavery, though technically abolished by the 13th Amendment, has continued to live on in spirit and practice throughout the generations since.

“I think there’s something to seeing it all together in one place. You can see the color red by itself, right? But when you put it next to other colors, it creates a different picture. I think we can talk about plea bargains by themselves. We can talk about the black codes and Reconstruction by itself. We can talk about Jim Crow by itself. But when you line them up and put them all side by side, that’s what the film does, and you think, “Lord, have mercy. Look at this picture. Look where we are.”
– Ava DuVernay, in conversation with The Atlantic –

Though just newly four years old, the documentary is just as timely as ever, if not more, in light of the current Black Lives Matter movement. It is a time when many of us find ourselves navigating conversations and belief systems that can prove especially challenging, so a history refresher is in order. For those of us who are white, it’s an American history lesson that we likely didn’t get in school – which is all the more reason to pay attention and take all the notes, if we want to be part of the solution.

To that point, DuVernay says, “I believe in fortification and I believe that at this time, we should be fortifying ourselves through knowledge, through self-care, through community. All of these speak through art. It’s really about rallying around this moment and taking in a totality of what it is, and making it internal in whatever way that means to you. If you know all this stuff, great. Pass it on. If you don’t know it, know it. You need to know it. Because at this point, after you see 13th, silence in this case is consent. You know all of this. You’re a forward-thinking person, you care about it. You can’t just walk out into the night after you see the movie or put down your iPad after you see it on Netflix and do nothing about it.”

It’s been nearly five months since the murder of George Floyd ignited protests across the country and around the globe, and if we’re being honest, we’ve seen the initial numbers of people getting involved and speaking up dwindling down a bit lately. That’s partly why we wanted to put “13th” in front of you today – to hopefully help light a fire of renewed energy. The importance of this film really can’t be overstated, so let me encourage you (and everyone you know) to prioritize watching it this weekend. Be prepared to have it stay with you, and be open to letting it change you. “I’m not saying you have to join a march. I’m not saying you have to push for legislation,” DuVernay says. “I’m saying what this film talks about is the very way that we deal with each other in the everyday. It’s about our relationship to each other as it deals with race. So there’s a lot there to be done.”

documentary | racism | slavery

For more on Ava DuVernay and her work, check out her Instagram and Twitter. She’s also made the incredible miniseries, “When They See Us” about the Central Park 5 streaming now on Netflix.


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