BySam Cooper, writer at
Spastic writer and a lover of all things with the word "espresso" in the title.
Sam Cooper

When the roll around every February, documentaries are forgotten as quickly as you forget what you ate for breakfast. Why? It's simple. Surprise features like La La Land and the scientifically twisty sci-fi hit, Arrival, overtake the press, leaving little room for non-fiction. But this year, the nominees for Best Documentary Feature are hiding something that's just as intense as Moonlight and holds as much political depth as Hidden Figures.

The kicker? It comes straight from Netflix.

Meet '13th'

'13th' [Credit: Netflix]
'13th' [Credit: Netflix]

Why is a documentary about prison named 13th? The answer is that the latest Original isn't just a documentary about prison. 13th uses the flawed prison system as a touchstone to discuss racial tension in America. It starts with the 13th amendment to the constitution, which abolished slavery, but also included a loophole that allowed the treatment of colored citizens to remain abusive.

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.

13th follows the impacts of this loophole through history. How did our prison population grow so big? Was Richard Nixon's 1971 war on drugs really about drugs? Is there money to be made from locking people up? 13th answers all of these questions with shocking strength. With the Oscars approaching fast, here's eight reasons why 13th should be next on your watch list.

1. '13th' Shines A Light On Racism In America

It's been a rough couple of years. With police brutality and racism coming into sharp focus on the political field, the sheer amount of viewpoints and opinions creates more confusion than clarity. Most people are tired of hearing about the same issues and not knowing what to do about them, but 13th is one of the most solid, unwavering voices in film and . Director Ava DuVernay takes you through a collection of surprising, shocking, and heartbreaking facts about why the American prison system has failed. It's not a scattered shotgun-blast attempt at riling up the audience over a hot issue. 13th is a meticulously and cleverly crafted investigation of a severe problem America faces.

'13th' [Credit: Netflix]
'13th' [Credit: Netflix]

2. It's Smart, But Not Intimidating

What has this past election cycle proved again and again and again? aren't the most pleasant way to spend your night off. If you get involved, odds are you're going to feel attacked by someone, but even with all the polarizing, marginalizing, and generalizing opinions vying for your attention, 13th's steady voice never steps over the line into assault territory. In the beginning, it doesn't ask anything from you except your attention. The points it makes are smart, but not intimidating or overly complicated by biases.

Just how smart is this documentary?

3. '13th' Builds A Well-Rounded Argument And Throws A Powerful Punch

In terms of scale, 13th is a monster. It traces our current issues back to the introduction of the 13th amendment, then tracks how the loophole impacted presidential campaigns and business over history. Nixon's war on drugs and the financial gain of organizations like ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) come under fire over the course of the film. 13th isn't another flashy, empty argument making rounds through the media. It's a genuinely enlightening and informative piece of work. It will shock some and merely confirm the suspicions of others, but 13th never fails to be powerful. If you're looking for a gut punch, it's here.

'13th' [Credit: Netflix]
'13th' [Credit: Netflix]

4. It's Only 100 Minutes Long

If some documentaries were converted to physical film, the tapes would be long enough to wrap the Empire State Building like a mummy. Twice. It takes a special breed of people to sit through hour after hour of a non-fiction feature film. Even though documentaries often get a bad name for their length, 13th keeps things sharp with a 100-minute run time. Excess in 13th simply doesn't exist. The interviews stay precise and relevant, and the supporting media never drags on longer than necessary. It's a refreshing change from the infinite lengths of other documentaries.

5. '13th' Has Great Art Production

Even with its fair share of archive footage, newspaper clippings and old photos, 13th still builds itself with a solid sense of style. The titles come to life with rusty shades of black and white. Prison-inspired graphics crawl across the screen and electrify the supporting statistics. The most unique aspect of 13th's production, however, is the way it takes a break from typical documentary fare and becomes a lyric video.

Wait, a lyric video? Yes, this documentary becomes a lyric video.

'13th' [Credit: Netflix]
'13th' [Credit: Netflix]

6. '13th' Has A Powerful Soundtrack

The issues central to 13th, like the ethics of our legal system, racial profiling, and the political influence on culture, aren't anything new to hip-hop music. 13th grabs hits from Nina Simone, Killer Mike, and Public Enemy to use as bookends to each point, each lyric flashing onscreen like any other popular music video climbing up the charts. Who would have expected that? doesn't just give color to our everyday lives. It can also be strength behind culturally-driven punches, and 13th cranks the volume to 11.

7. Watching '13th' Supports Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay, writer and director of 13th, is one of the most versatile talents in Hollywood. Not only has she directed high-profile films like the Oscar-winning Selma, but her work also extends to publicity for animated movies and blockbusters. You'd probably wouldn't expect the name behind 13th to appear in the credits of Spider-Man 2, but it's there nonetheless. Ava Duverney's latest project is the upcoming adaptation the wildly popular children's fantasy novel, A Wrinkle In Time. That's quite a range, if you ask me. Want to see more excellent films from artists like Ava DuVernay? Give 13th a watch.

'13th' [Credit: Netflix]
'13th' [Credit: Netflix]

8. It's On Netflix Right Now

This seals the deal. Who doesn't have a account? For those who don't, who doesn't know the password to a friend's account? 13th is available to stream at any given moment in time. If you like to watch shows in increments, it's there for you. If you like to take it all at once, do it. Finding and watching Oscar nominees isn't always the easiest task, but 13th is already cued up and ready to play.

By now, it's pretty clear the La La Land hype will never die, but don't let that distract you from one of the riveting underdogs of the . 13th is a masterpiece. It succeeds in proving a political point without being preachy, annoying, or disastrously one-sided. The short running time keeps you hooked for the entire ride, and if you aren't moved by the end, you can forget about all this and go back to your breakfast.

But I guarantee you won't want to eat after 13th ruins your appetite.

Have you seen 13th yet? What did you think?


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