How Ava DuVernay’s 13th Reframes American History?

In 2016, Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th premiered on Netflix and took the world by storm. The film examines the 13th amendment of the United States Constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. DuVernay’s film explores how this exception has been used to perpetuate a system of mass incarceration that disproportionately affects Black Americans.

The Power of Film

DuVernay is known for her powerful storytelling and her ability to spark important conversations through her work. 13th is no exception. The film uses interviews with activists, politicians, and scholars to paint a picture of how the criminal justice system has been used as a tool for oppression.

The History of Mass Incarceration

One of the most striking aspects of 13th is its historical context. The film traces the history of mass incarceration in America, beginning with the end of slavery and continuing through Jim Crow laws and the war on drugs. Through archival footage and expert analysis, DuVernay shows how each era built upon the last to create a system that Targets Black Americans.

  • The Birth of a Nation: The film highlights D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), which perpetuated harmful stereotypes about Black people and helped fuel the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.
  • Jim Crow Laws: DuVernay shows how Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation and led to increased rates of Black imprisonment.
  • The War on Drugs: The film argues that President Nixon’s war on drugs was really a war on Black communities, resulting in harsher sentencing guidelines for drug offenses.

The Impact Today

While 13th provides an important historical context for mass incarceration, it also shows how the system continues to impact Black Americans today. The film features interviews with people who have been directly affected by mass incarceration, including those who have been wrongfully convicted and those whose families have been torn apart by the system.


Overall, 13th is a powerful film that reframes American history. By providing a historical context for mass incarceration and showing how the system impacts Black Americans today, DuVernay has sparked important conversations about race and justice in America. Through her use of archival footage, expert analysis, and personal stories, she has created a film that is both informative and emotionally impactful.