A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that 13th is a powerful documentary that addresses racial issues confronting America in 2016. In a time of polarized attitudes about mass incarceration, brutality, and the explosion of for-profit prisons and their affiliates, director Ava DuVernay interviews social activists, academics, journalists, and political figures to make the case that today's prisons, which house millions of persons of color, are simply the next incarnation of the centuries-old U.S. exploitation of those who have been deemed "lesser personages." Using archival footage and a clearly developed historical narration to bolster her contention, DuVernay's epic film is not for the faint of heart. The violence onscreen is not "re-created"; it gives prominence to actual beatings, murders, deaths from point-blank gunshots, lynching, and the profound intimidation and caging of both individuals and large groups of African Americans. Incendiary language (visual and audio uses of the "N" word, "f--k," "a--hole") as well as discussions of rape and sexual assault add to the impact of the story. Two men are naked as they are dragged by police officers. Provocative and heartbreakingly real, this documentary is recommended for mature teens and up.
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What's the story?
A reading of one sentence in the 13th Amendment to our Constitution is the foundation of Ava DuVernay's documentary, 13TH. “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, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” And, the "except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted" are the words that form the basis of her well-executed thesis. First, summing up the history of African Americans in the U.S., accompanied by the archival footage, newsreels, documents, and filmed speeches of past leaders, DuVernay declares that today's modern racial injustice is simply an extension of America's past racial behavior... from slavery to convict-leasing to Jim Crow and forward. Then, intercut with the footage, are in-depth conversations with prominent, effective leaders from both the African-American and white communities (academics, social activists, journalists, politicians). Organizing her material into concise, relevant sections, divided by animated titles with rap music on the soundtrack, the director and her team cover every aspect of the current controversial racial issues: moral, sociological, and economic. The film is a fiery indictment of the status quo, and an undisguised appeal to change it.
Is it any good?
In this fierce call to action, director Ava DuVernay effectively doubles down on both educating her viewers and inspiring them to take a stand against racial injustice in 2016 America. Hoping to provide a semblance of political balance to her efforts in 13th, DuVernay asserts that both Democratic and Republican administrations are responsible for burgeoning prison populations and the devastating effect of past policies on an entire minority population. Additionally, she interviews well-known conservatives, like Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist. However, given the evidence on screen, it's difficult to provide an "other side" of the film's arguments. Particularly compelling are sequences in which she identifies some of the most noxious corporations and/or organizations (Correction Corporation of America, National Correction Industries Association, American Legislation Exchange Council) that profit from and depend upon the rounding up of as many able-bodied men as possible. And she unabashedly includes the chilling footage from a number of recent police shootings of unarmed African-American men and boys. Challenging, disturbing, and confrontational, this film is must-see viewing for mature and concerned Americans.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the purpose of 13th. Documentaries always have specific aims: to entertain, inform, persuade, or inspire. How many of these categories are relevant to this film? Do you think director Ava DuVernay successfully accomplished these goals?
If this movie inspired you, what might you and/or your family and friends do to take action to change this situation? Some possibilities might be: actively working to elect like-minded individuals; recommending this film to others; joining and working with specific organizations that have influence in your community or on the internet.
What surprised you most about our country's treatment of African-American citizens over its long history? By the film's end, did DuVernay convince you that today's mass incarceration of Americans of color is an extension of slavery? Why or why not?
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