There are four new documentaries that, while timed for Oscar votes, have a much bigger target audience: The American voters. These urgently topical films peel away decades of mythology, propaganda, and misinformation to reveal why so many people in this country are not only incarcerated in our thriving prison economy, but function inside prisons of misguided perception.
It’s easy to see why the New York Film Festival picked Ava DuVernay’s “13th” as its first-ever documentary opening-night film. In the year of Ferguson and Black Lives Matter, as fearful cops continue to gun down unarmed black men in the street, this must-see film will raise consciousness about how race affects the way we regard and behave toward the people around us. “13th” is a history of how white people have treated African-Americans since 1865 — when the 13th Amendment abolished slavery — and it roused the Lincoln Center crowd to multiple standing ovations as well as critics’ raves.
Netflix VP Lisa Nishimura reached out to DuVernay after “Selma,” knowing that she’d begun her filmmaking career in documentaries. At a New York Film Festival press conference, the Compton-raised director said that she wanted her Netflix doc to give a wide swath of people “an understanding of what we’re seeing and why we think the way we do. How much of what we think is manufactured and given to us?”
Later on the phone, DuVernay told me she wanted to “go back and do a history lesson, to help people make associations, and grasp the system more fully, not just taken in snapshot. It’s too complicated. It would be a disservice to the tragedy that is happening not to paint a full picture.” (That said, while there was a four-hour cut, DuVernay was set on delivering a two-hour movie.)
UCLA History grad DuVernay chose to lay out her argument in chronological order, from 1865 through the Jim Crow era into the Civil Rights movement and the growth of the prison-industrial complex (a phrase coined by Angela Davis, one of 38 people DuVernay interviews at length on camera).
DuVernay began by examining prisons, but her inquiries led her down many more rabbit holes as she looked at some 1,500 hours of archival footage and tried to explain why our prisons treat so many black men like slaves. Chilling footage from the likes of Lee Atwater and John Ehrlichman reveal the lengths taken by the Nixon and Reagan administrations to keep African-American communities at bay via law-and-order policies and the war on drugs. It wasn’t just a conspiracy theory.
“We wanted to show the building blocks, show the progression of oppression,” DuVernay said. “It was very clear decade by decade, it was the organizing principle we embraced.”
“13th” hits theaters for an Oscar-qualifying run October 7 — the same day it begins streaming on Netflix, and 25 days before Election Day. “I felt eager to share this material before folks made their decisions to vote,” she said. “I felt I needed to get this out months in advance. The October 7 release was just in the nick of time to enter the conversation and ask people to interrogate these issues.”
And, after some internal debates, she included Donald Trump in the film. “Trump has taken this country to a place that will have repercussions past this moment… for a long time,” she told the NYFF press.
Another doc in the New York Film Festival addresses race relations in America. “I Am Not Your Negro” (Magnolia, December 9) from 62-year-old documentarian Raoul Peck, works from an unfinished manuscript (“Remember This House”) by the late writer James Baldwin (“Another Country”) about a generation of black leaders slain in their prime: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers. Samuel L. Jackson voices Baldwin as the film’s articulate narrator, describing meetings with all three men and their oversized impact on the culture before they were tragically brought down. We see clips of Baldwin giving talks, and appearing on the Dick Cavett Show describing the mythology of the negro criminal. Whites’ terror toward blacks “has made them criminals and monsters,” said Baldwin.
And just as DuVernay unpacks the powerful images in D.W. Griffith’s seminal “The Birth of a Nation” that reinvigorated a dormant Ku Klux Klan and introduced iconographic burning cross, so Baldwin explains how liberal Hollywood’s “lie of their pretended humanism” in lauded ’60s classics like “The Defiant Ones” and “In the Heat of the Night” produced images of black and white reconciliation that were designed “not to trouble but to reassure.” When Sidney Poitier jumps off a moving train to save Tony Curtis, he said, black folks wanted him to “stay on the train!”
In theaters now is another eye-opener, Tribeca documentary-prize-winner “Do Not Resist” (Vanish Film/mTuckman Media), a first feature from cinematographer Craig Atkinson (“Detropia”) about the fraught relationship between heavily armed police and black communities around the country. The son of a white retired SWAT officer, Atkinson took his camera to Ferguson, Miss. to capture first-hand footage of the armed face-off between police in battle gear and angry citizenry. He gained access to enlightening police training sessions where top trainer David Grossman exhorted attendees to feel like superheroes in capes as they prepare for terrorist situations most will never have to face. (The officer who killed Philander Castile in Minnesota attended Grossman’s classes.)
And the film shows how the government is complicit in providing — at taxpayer expense — small towns such as Concord, Mass. with gigantic armored vehicles largely used for drug raids that, more often than not, don’t find drugs. “They’re called MRAPs, for Mining Resistant Ambush Protectant vehicle,” Atkinson told me. “They’re designed to withstand a roadside bomb exploding under the chassis, and are effective overseas. They tend to roll over.”
And capping off this must-see list is ESPN Films’ five-part, seven-hour-and-46-minute film, “OJ: Made in America,” directed by Ezra Edelman, which is coming back into theatrical release in major cities this month ahead of awards season.
Sometimes giving a director the freedom to find a movie can be the right thing. ESPN exec Connor Schell gave star “30 by 30” director Edelman (“Requiem for the Big East,” “Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals”) carte blanche to provide the O.J. Simpson Trial of the Century with history and context. Raised in Washington, D.C. by children’s-rights advocate Marian Wright Edelman, the filmmaker started with a contract to deliver four hours on Simpson by 2015.
“Honestly, the whole thing was a complete cart-before-the-horse approach,” Edelman told me, “a leap of faith. We wanted to do something long before we had any idea what it was. I was on my own.”
First screened to raves at Sundance in January, the compelling narrative seamlessly takes us from Los Angeles in the ’60s, when Simpson was a star USC football player and the city faced the Watts race riots, through the aftermath of the Simpson trial. I saw things about how L.A. police treat black citizens that I had never seen before — not only the accumulated violent police attacks on the local black population during several decades of riots, but also routinely trashing people’s homes for no reason. It becomes clear why people from Watts to Compton have learned not to trust cops.
Similarly, “Do Not Resist” shows SWAT teams pulling up in armored trucks for a routine drug raid on peaceful families going about their business, using the cash from their pockets (“asset forfeiture”) to fund their operations.
“Made in America” took so long to get made that FX’s Emmy-winning limited series, “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” came and went a few months before “Made in America” aired in five parts on ESPN this summer and swiftly hit multiplatform release. Having missed the Emmy window, the film’s rousing Sundance debut gave ESPN the confidence to release it in theaters for Oscar consideration.
The movie is divided into five parts of different lengths, not one-hour episodes, but the divisions are organic. Edelman said he told ESPN: “I’m not doing a mini-series, I have zero interest. I’m interested in telling a story. I don’t care how you air it.” While IMDb treats “Made in America” as episodic television and many reviewers consider it ESPN TV, Edelman says he made a long film designed to be watched by a group inside a theater. “That was the best part of the whole process,” Edelman told me at an L.A. luncheon for Academy members. “The most rewarding part of it was sitting in a theater.”
Thus far, movie awards groups are going along with “Made in America.” It is being considered by the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Academy as a film, and landed on the DOC NYC shortlist of 15 along with “13th” and “I Am Not Your Negro.”
We could see all three films in the race for the final five Oscar nominees — on their way to changing the way people view the world.