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13th: A Movie Discussion Guide for Reform Ohio

13th is a 2016 documentary directed by Ava DuVernay. The film explores the intersection of race and mass incarceration in the United States.

Learn more about 13th here

1. What did you know about the prison system before watching this film? How did this film shape your understanding of the prison system? What, if anything, changed about your views of the prison system? What surprised you in the film?

2. How did you feel after viewing 13th? Did you feel helpless, inspired, stirred to action, or a combination of all three? Do you think the message of the film was ultimately hopeful? Why or why not?

3. The film establishes the connections to our country’s history of slavery and segregation.  The film tells us that systems reinvent themselves. What do you think your role is in ending this cycle? How can you be more vigilant against institutional racism?

4. Midrash teaches us, “If I create the world with mercy (rachamim), its sins will be numerous, [if I create it] with judgment (din), how will the world stand? Rather, I will create it with judgment and mercy, and oh, that the world might stand!” (Genesis Rabbah 12:15).

5. What are your thoughts about how the film portrays the media’s influence on the American people being conditioned to fear black men?

6. Many politicians on both sides of the aisle, apologized for being tough on crime and their role in the prison system. In what ways is this teshuvah? Is that enough for full teshuvah or does more need to be done?

7. Judaism believes in the possibility of teshuvah (repentance), the idea that one can look upon one’s actions, see the wrongs in one’s ways and work to not commit the same wrong again. Teshuvah is also more than that; it is the idea that we can change who we are. The process of teshuvah requires serious soul searching and reflection.  In what ways can the changes we hope to bring about be built on the value of teshuvah? Do you feel inspired to do something about this? What?

8. The Torah tells us repeatedly that we are to care for the orphan, the widow and the stranger. These are individuals who live on the margins of society. Prisoners may be seen as living beyond the margins, perhaps in the shadows, perhaps out of sight, the morning blessings thank God for giving us the ability to see by literally opening our eyes. How does opening our eyes to mass incarceration lift up the souls and the dignity of those who have been locked away?

9. Many of you may remember the “War on Drugs.” How did you feel about it at the time? What are your reflections of it now after viewing this film? It seems as though judgment was heavy handed here, what if more mercy or compassion was present?


*The following resources were used to create this guide:
Center of Concern 13th Discussion Guide
T'ruah Handbook on Mass Incarceration