60 13th (2016)

Cinematic Technique in 13th (2016)

By Esmeralda Hernandez


The thirteenth amendment was ratified in 1865 to eradicate voluntary and involuntary slavery except when used for punishment when convicted of a crime in the United States. With the incarcerated population increasing at daringly high rates since the amendment was founded, the documentary 13th ​puts a spotlight on the amendment and the loophole that has been placed by stereotypes, racism, and system corruption. This movie also demonstrates mise-en-scene techniques to enhance and help the audience better understand the setting and nature of the film. This movie is a representation of how race, discrimination, and power have molded the justice system while media and modern society have formed an unhealthy relationship with its views on freedom.


With freedom at the front of most political and social disagreements, it raises questions of trust between the people of America and its relationship with the justice system. As incarceration rates, police brutality, violence, and political protest increase, chaos will also increase in the imbalance of power. For example, this can relate to the world now, the Minneapolis protests and raids have sparked controversial views after a police officer killed George Floyd after handcuffing and kneeling on Floyd’s neck eventually causing him to suffocate. Those within Floyd’s community and in other parts of America have seen extreme force used within the justice system, this is shown by representation of race, discrimination, and the power that the differences between us hold.


13th highlights a portion of those who have experienced, witnessed, or have been impacted by the prejudice society has constructed. They also address the unforeseen consequences and those who use the loophole for power, greed, and control. The amendment was created so that slavery would only be acceptable in the form of punishment. In order to explain and present their perspective, the film brings in a vast amount of credible people, such as Cory Booker, mayor of New Jersey, Angela Davis, famous activist, and others in business, politics, and the law creating trust within the audience.


13th also uses cinematography techniques such as lighting and angles within the film. For example, the interviewers are the storytellers and when they are being filmed they angle the camera so that the person telling their perspective to a ‘mystery’ person off to the distance. This is a technique that is utilized throughout the film and during every interview. This allows the audience to feel as if they are being let in on a secret or important message. The main angle they use is a medium close-up shot, “A framing in which the scale of the object shown is fairly large; a human figure seen from the chest up would fill most of the screen” (Prunes 3), which leaves little room for other influences other than that person, a common angle used.


Screenshot from 13th
Screenshot from the documentary 13th


Discrimination is apparent and explicitly shown throughout the film when they show certain techniques such as editing and montage. When an interviewee is explaining an interesting and what may or may not be a plausible story, they edit in scenes to back up their testimony. For example, they edit or montage an array of videos with voice overs to also keep the viewer’s attention. This entire movie is addressing race and discrimination to advocate and educate those who are uninformed of the prejudice we accumulate. As explained in the film white patriarchal views dominate western culture discriminating against those of color. According to the textbook, America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies, “​The United States was founded on and still adheres to the dominant ideology of white patriarchal capitalism” (Benshoff and Griffin 44). That being said, this is a belief system that has been constructed by society enabling the use of discrimination and power.


In the film, they represent individual and historical evidence throughout time, beginning through slavery and ending in the present day. When doing so they use editing techniques to better help the viewer understand the ways race and power have shaped the society in which we remain today. For example, when showing montages of news articles and films from the early ’90s, they are careful to pay attention to the color. This gives the audience the feeling of being dragged through time with authenticity and reveals some shocking moments in our nation’s history. Some of the clips are black and white and then entering the 20th and 21st-century color and pixel qualities enhance. Examples of the clips from other films that were shown included minstrel show, blackface impersonations, and representations of stereotypes. These montages of older black and white clips were shown to help explain the power films had over the depiction of another race.


Another important mise-en-scene element used is sound throughout the film, during interviews or personal points of view, they keep a low constant note or tone to create an ominous feeling and enhance the importance of the topic through deep sounds and low lighting. Literary design elements are shown, for instance, when they have the transition slides to introduce another section of the story they play a song with lyrics displayed on the screen often having the song relate to prejudice or race. This allows the audience to think about the information that was expressed as well as the willingness to wait and keep the attention focused on what will happen next.


In conclusion, 13th serves to effectively address the amendment that has created a creative way to lawfully uphold slavery within the justice system. The film also showcases the correlation between the increasing population in prisons and specifically within the minorities. The amendment states that slavery is unlawful except when used for punishment for a crime. For the minorities, this should have meant freedom but the change in the system may have been too drastic for the already formed generational habits and beliefs. The reason this film was picked is that the main topic is based on race, discrimination, and power and can be relatable to some of today’s issues. The film displays literary, cinematography, and sound design to enhance the viewer’s experience as well as a lens through those affected directly or indirectly by prejudice.




Benshoff, Harry M, and Sean Griffon. America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies. ​ProQuest Ebook​,2009, ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/linnbenton-ebooks/reader.action?docID=819377.


Bernardi, Daniel, and Michael Green. Race in American Film: Voices and Visions That Shaped a Nation. Gale​ EBooks,​2017, go-gale-com.ezproxy.libweb.linnbenton.edu/ps/pdfViewer


Grant, WR. ​Post-Soul Black Cinema​. Routledge. 2004, web-a-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.libweb.linnbenton.edu/ehost/ebookviewer/ebook/bmxlYmtfXzExNjQ1OV9fQU41?sid=daffd8a5-c822-4ec8-bf4a-279117381225@sdc-v-sessmgr01&vid=0&format=EB&rid=1.


Mise-en-Scene. Yale Film Analysis​, filmanalysis.yale.edu/mise-en-scene/.


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Difference, Power, and Discrimination in Film and Media: Student Essays Copyright © by Students at Linn-Benton Community College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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