13th: A Movie Review

What is the 13th documentary? It is a Netflix documentary about the creation and fallout of the 13th Amendment to the United States constitution, by Ava DuVernay. The 13th Amendment states:

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.[1]


13th begins with asking the question, “if we are the land of the free, why do we have the largest incarceration rate in the world? Why is the land of the free the land of the prisoner?” The purpose then of this documentary is to show the shift in American culture from racial slavery in the first half of the 1800s, to the mass incarceration of the 1970s through the present. It looks to highlight the prison boom directly after the enactment of the 13th amendment, specifically with the phrase “except as a punishment for crime.” DuVernay shows us how through the years African-Americans have been classified as criminals and that it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the same way that calling someone a name repeatedly, they begin to wonder if they are what they are being called. There are many, after the civil rights movement began, who came to believe that the problem of race was fixed in the United States, but DuVernay demonstrates that this is not the case, rather, the problem has just morphed. Racism has changed in form over time and will continue to change, but the substance remains as long as it is financially profitable to continue. Racism was an economical issue during the 1800s and it is still economical today. Although, not quoted by DuVernay, we see that the Bible speaks specifically to this, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils (1 Tim 6:10, ESV).


Much of what DuVernay is attempting to prove is true. The militarization of police, the incarceration industrial complex, and the attack on poor segments of our society are all well shown and proven in this documentary. The part where this documentary lacks the most is in attempting to prove too much. There are many extra questions that a viewer can come up with just asking for more information, more statistics, and many other various aspects of this complex issue. DuVernay does not have the time to really address all of these complexities.

DuVernay has done a great job of researching and acquiring source material from all sides of the issue. Yes, she definitely has a single side which she is attempting to prove, but she does show how both parties (ie Democrat and Republican) have failed and made the situation worse and worse. From Nixon’s rhetorical war on drugs, to Reagan’s literal war on drugs, to Clinton’s Three Strikes and Mandatory Minimum policies, all have failed. She also shows how many in the African-American community had bought into many of these policies as they were happening. This balance is one of the greatest strengths of 13th.


The obvious criticality of this movie at this time with all of the shootings, “blackVsBlue,” #BlackLivesMatter, #BlueLivesMatter, #AllLivesMatter, is showing that this is a huge part of our culture as Western (American) Christians. As Christians, as Western Reformed Christians, we need to realize that this cultural problem is also our problem. We need to help this situation in our culture, because Christ has called us to change the culture. How? Through the preaching of the Word, praying for our culture, the sharing of sacraments, and through worship of Christ. How this looks for you personally, I cannot say, you may march in a movement, you may post a blog, chat with a friend, vlog, etc. I don’t know, but for the sake of the Gospel, we need to become all things to all men (1 Cor 9:19-23) and, for those of us, who are white western Christians, we need to adhere to a modified version of Paul’s words and “to the [African-Americans], we become an [African-American], that we may win some.” It is only the gospel that can change the world and only the gospel that can mend all these broken hearts.

I want to post some quotes from some people on an online forum that had some great insights (Note: these were written before this movie was released).

All lives do matter. But I think the point is that if say for instance during the holocaust, if people created a Jews lives matter movement, would people say ‘all lives matter, why just talk about Jews?’ All lives do matter, but we aren’t talking about all people, we are focusing on one specific group.

We sign petitions to stop the killing of Christians in other countries. That is one specific group. If people tried to come in and say all people matter in other countries, not just Christians, then we would humbly tell them that all people do, but we are talking about Christians.” — Robert Zamzow

[Once] you understand the systematic nature of racism, you’ll understand why blacks lives matter AND need special attention. They matter BECAUSE all lives matter, yet they have not been given the same protections and status. For this reason, we must highlight the oppressed, and say #BlackLivesMatter.

This is not to support everything or even most of what that movement includes, any more than professing Christianity is to endorse any and all that has been waged under that label throughout history. Faithfulness to Christ simply demands that we help the stranger, widow, orphan, and all the oppressed, including ones in prison. If we could provide a strictly biblical version of the movement and get Christians on board with it, we could address the social problem and separate the radical leftist elements of it at the same time.” — Dr. Joel McDurmon[2]

  1. https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/13thamendment.html
  2. Conversation took place in a discussion thread on the Reformed Pub Facebook group