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Themes in Ava DuVernay’s “13th” Essay (Movie Review)

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Updated: May 11th, 2022

Although slavery was abolished in the United States many years ago, the American society has indicators of a modern form of hidden slavery that was legalized according to the Thirteenth Amendment. This controversial topic is discussed in 13th, a documentary that was directed by Ava DuVernay and released by Netflix in 2016 (Netflix, 2016). The other important themes accentuated in the film include mass incarceration, racism, social bias, the gender issue, the impact on the environment, the social impact, the ineffectiveness of a prison system, and education. The purpose of this paper is to analyze 13th in the context of addressing the listed themes and discuss its relevance for being used in educational settings.

In her documentary, DuVernay presents the issue of mass incarceration of black male persons as an American variant of modern slavery. In this context, the following topics should be discussed in their connection to each other: mass imprisoning, racism, the gender issue, and social bias. According to DuVernay’s message, American society is inclined to refer to slavery for profit, and mass incarceration of African American males contributes to this economic goal (Netflix, 2016).

Furthermore, this tradition has its origins in Jim Crow laws and provocative positions of Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump discussed in the film. The problem is that racial and social prejudice is reflected in the U.S. Constitution in the form of the Thirteenth Amendment that allows choosing some kind of slavery for punishment.

It seems to be typical of American society to shift the visions used in the 18th-19th centuries regarding African American people that are closely based on racism and social bias to the 20th-21st centuries. In addition, there is also a gender issue as African American males represent a significant portion of the imprisoned population in the United States. Thus, more than 35 percents of the imprisoned population are made up by African Americans (Netflix, 2016).

According to the behaviorism-related theory by John B. Watson, children’s views, reactions, and actions are formed by their environments and parents’ ideas. The similar idea is proposed by Albert Bandura and his concept of social learning (Shaffer & Kipp, 2014). From this perspective, DuVernay’s documentary represents how the ideas about the possibility of slavery and racism are shared between Americans from one generation to another. As a result, there is a question about what can be changed in society and education, as well as public’s perceptions of people of color, in order to alter this tendency.

Other issues that need to be discussed with reference to the film include the impact of mass incarceration on the environment and adverse effects of the environment on this phenomenon, as well as social impacts. The problem is that the number of prisoners tends to increase each year, as it is stated in the documentary. Thus, in the 1970s, almost 200,000 people were in US prisons, and today this number is more than 2 million people (Netflix, 2016).

There can be several causes of this situation, including the environmental factor. According to Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory, an individual develops under the impact of different environmental impacts, including the family, school, friends, neighbors, mass media, and community (Shaffer & Kipp, 2014). As a result, these subjects influence what choices will be made by persons when they are adults. Under the community’s impact, African American males can choose a criminal path, and under the media’s impact, white people can regard black males as potential criminals.

One more important issue to discuss in the context of 13th is the ineffectiveness of a prison system in the United States. Thus, prisons in the country are overcrowded, minorities who represent more than 60% of the overall imprisoned population are discriminated and usually abused, and black males are used as the extremely cheap labor force (Netflix, 2016). As a result, prisoners just work to address the needs of corporations to generate more profits without opportunities to develop their potential and transform to become the part of American society in the future.

From this perspective, prison does not work as a correctional facility, and the problem is that these people used as slaves can become even more traumatized because of their experience in prison. Referring to DuVernay’s message in the documentary, it is possible to state that the overall prison system in the United States is developed to address economic and political needs and interests. Thus, its social correctional effect seems to be limited (Stierman, 2017).

The situation of overcrowding in prisons of the United States cannot contribute to helping prisoners, African American males or representatives of other gender and race, to develop their personal potential and realize an effective social role.

It is also important to discuss the ideas presented in DuVernay’s 13th with the focus on modern education in the United States. Taking into account B. F. Skinner’s ideas regarding reinforcers and punishers to form people’s behavior, it is possible to state that the fear of being imprisoned can work as a punisher for preventing criminal actions. However, the problem is that, according to DuVernay, this aspect does not contribute to reducing the number of prisoners (Lopez-Littleton & Woodley, 2018). There are other sources of mass incarceration, and they are closely associated with racial and economic factors. Therefore, today young persons often do not understand what particular actions can lead to imprisoning, especially for people of color.

For a pre-service teacher, DuVernay’s 13th can provide a range of topics to think over while discussing the role of school and society in forming the personality. From this perspective, it is important to answer the questions about the potential impact of education on decreases in rates of crimes and on social stability in minorities’ communities. African Americans men are often arrested and incarcerated because they not only act like criminals, but they are also assumed to act like criminals. Therefore, a pre-service teacher should think over about the role of a class environment in forming this prejudice.

After watching 13th, it is possible to adapt some of the ideas presented in the film to discussing with high school students. Firstly, it is necessary to discuss this film while explaining the nature of the Thirteenth Amendment, as well as the Sixth Amendment that guarantees criminal defendants’ right to impartial jury among other rights. Secondly, it is important to analyze this film in the context of discussing the problem of racism in modern American society. It is important to demonstrate how hidden racism can become real while speaking about the prison system and criminal justice bias in the United States.

DuVernay’s 13th is the documentary that makes the viewer reconsider his or her vision of American society today in terms of the problem of mass incarceration. This film should be analyzed by educators in order to use some of its parts in their discussions of racism and slavery. Furthermore, the film can be recommended for high school students in order to discuss not only the phenomenon of modern slavery but also the impact of social prejudice and environments on individuals and their life path.


Lopez-Littleton, V., & Woodley, A. (2018). Movie review of 13th by Ava Duvernay: Administrative evil and the prison industrial complex. Public Integrity, 20(4), 415-418.

Netflix. (2016). . Web.

Shaffer, D. R., & Kipp, K. (2014). Developmental psychology: Childhood and adolescence (9th ed.). New York, NY: Cengage Learning.

Stierman, V. (2017). When the hidden injustices are brought to light: A review of 13th. Tapestries: Interwoven Voices of Local and Global Identities, 6(1), 1-3.

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