Rhetorical Analysis of 13th Documentary

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Words: 1265 |

Pages: 3|

7 min read

Published: Feb 8, 2022

Words: 1265|Pages: 3|7 min read

Published: Feb 8, 2022

Ayanna Pressley, a US Representative from Massachusetts once said, “We must acknowledge that issues like systemic racism, economic inequality, and the achievement gap are results of manmade policies.” In Ava Duvernay’s documentary, 13th, she explores the idea of the thirteenth amendment of the US Constitution being responsible for the mass incarceration of people of colour. Duvernay’s use of different rhetorical techniques contributes to a story of systemic racism that can be commended by people from both ends of the political spectrum. “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.” The US Constitution’s thirteenth amendment prohibits slavery unless the justice system convicts you of a crime. Unless you are incarcerated. The director uses words, stories, and pictures to prove a point made by Ayanna Pressley and many others. Through the use of accredited speakers, compelling evidence, and vivid imagery, Ava Duvernay was able to effectively convey that systemic racism in the justice system stems from the loophole in the 13th amendment.

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Ethos is a form of persuasion that relies on the speaker’s/presenter’s credibility. Without credibility the audience would have trouble connecting and finding a sense of reliability in the ideas the director was trying to convey to the audience. Throughout the film director presents an array of historical figures. From presidential addresses given by various sitting presidents like Barack Obama, who opens the film with a statistic on incarceration rates in the United States. To the many speeches given by historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr and Angela Davis. Duvernay presented figures who have either gone through the system or have immense knowledge about the injustice faced by people of colour within the justice system. By presenting people/ minorities who have experienced injustice from the system, Duvernay was better able to create trust because they were easily recognizable by the general public. But, what truly contributed to the credibility of the director’s film was the fact that it presented views from multiple point-of-views. When discussing politics and legislation, the audience heard interviews from people who are or were in political offices like Newt Gingrich and Cory Booker. When the topic of lobbying came up there was an interview with Michael Hough who was not only a senator at the time of this film, but was also a member of the corporation/lobbying group ALEC. Duvernay presented multiple civil rights activists like Malkia Cyril and Gina Clayton, who is the founder of the justice group Essie. The director also had interviews with professors from notable universities like Kevin Gannon who teaches at Grandview University in Idaho, and Jelani Cobb who is a writer and professor of journalism at Columbia University. Duvernay grabs the point of view of people from different expert fields to provide multiple perspectives for the audience. Ethos was used many times along the film to impact the credibility of the documentary by not only presenting facts but also credible sources.

Since the people who brought up the facts were notable figures, the facts in and of themselves were more likely to resonate with the audience. Duvernay, right at the beginning of the film presents the statistic given by President Obama that one-fourth of the world's incarcerated population is in the United States. What made this specific piece of evidence compelling was the fact that it followed Obama’s previous statement that the United States was home to only five-percent of the world’s population. Also, throughout the documentary Duvernay constantly drives the point that it is within the US Constitution, the document that governs every piece of legislation created, is injustice against people of colour legal. There is also a strong presence of legal jargon displayed throughout that helps create a connection for people in the audience who are more drawn to the statistics and truths of injustice within the US justice system. Near the end of the film, the audience is shown the realities of incarceration rates between people of colour and their white counterparts. Only “1 in 17 white men are likely to go to jail, 1 in 3 black men are likely to end up in jail”. Through the use of compelling evidence throughout the film, the director was able to better educate the audience and further convey the film’s purpose.

Finally, the most effective way Duvernay reached the audience was through the use of images, videos, and films, which in general, tend to provoke emotions in viewers. Emotions are so strong that it forces its viewers to draw a connection or to recall a similar situation to those described in the film. One example could be seen at the very beginning of the documentary. As the various speakers are talking about the “first [US] prison boom” after the Civil War, a montage begins. Pictures of black boys and men in prison uniform performing seemingly arduous tasks. Clips from Birth Of A Nation that dehumanized black men. Depicting them as rapists and showing the romanticized views of the Ku Klux Klan leading to a reintroduction of the KKK into society. Duvernay used clips from Birth of A Nation to show how acts taken in this film were a great depiction of “life imitating art” as Jeloni Cobb, one of the speakers in the film, points out. By showing the unfiltered, real images viewers were forced to be taken back to that time. Multiple unfiltered images of black men being lynched, with large groups of people, gathered around. Clips of a black man with “KKK” carved into his skin by klansmen. These images, along with the newspaper headings of that time that depicted no real remorse for the terrorizing acts evoke feelings of anger and even confusion with its audience.

Another strong example of Duvernay’s effective use of imagery and clips is seen near the end of the film. The viewer is taken back to the 2016 US Presidential elections. As President Trump is delivering speeches at campaign rallies chanting “USA! USA!” with the attendees, clips showing Americans, specifically white on black, spitting in faces, yelling offensive remarks and manhandling are shown. Creating a juxtaposition between the feeling of nationalism with the “USA!” chants and the discrimination found in the clips showing violence against the black people by their white counterparts. As President Trump continues to reminisce about the “good ole’ days” a montage of clips showing the similarities between discrimination during the Jim Crow era, Segregation, and today, begins. Within these clips we see black men being beaten groups of white men and police officers during segregation. Black men and women being harassed at political rallies of today. Clips of black children behind bars. All of these images and clips help contribute to a more emotionally-capturing film.

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Duvernay’s documentary film, 13th, is such a widely acclaimed film because it tackles an issue that impacts so many Americans today. It was effective, not just because it is a controversial topic but because the director was able to use various amounts of rhetorical techniques that they know would be appealing to the target audience. Though there some flaws such as not exposing the audience to more ideas and reasons from the opposing view but all in all, DuVernay was able to effectively convey her ideas to those who they wanted to. People who had some idea of the injustice within the justice system, but still needed more education on it. This documentary depicts a contentious argument using reliable and credible information to persuade its audience.

Works Cited

  1. DuVernay , Ava, director. 13th. Netflix Official Site, 7 Oct. 2016 
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Rhetorical Analysis Of 13th Documentary. (2022, February 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 2, 2023, from
“Rhetorical Analysis Of 13th Documentary.” GradesFixer, 10 Feb. 2022,
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