As usual, the five nominees in the fiercely competitive Best Documentary Oscar category are comprised of high-profile hits and festival award-winners with the right combination of accessibility, artful filmmaking, and gravitas. However, this year’s race was marked by outside factors that included #OscarsSoWhite and the election of President Donald Trump. (Of note: Filmmakers of color directed four of the five nominated feature documentaries.)
Here’s how the documentary race shakes out:
“O.J.: Made in America” (Ezra Edelman, ESPN, May 20)
Scoring great reviews at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival was Ezra Edelman’s five-part movie “O.J.: Made in America,” an exhaustive, eye-opening examination of O.J. Simpson and race relations in Los Angeles from the ’60s through the Trial of the Century and beyond.
The movie swept through awards groups: it won three Cinema Eye Honors awards, took home the IDA for Best Feature, the Gotham, the National Board of Review, National Society of Film Critics, New York Film Critics Circle, and was the big winner at the inaugural Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards, taking home both Best Documentary and Best Director in the Theatrical Feature category. “OJ: Made in America” also won the PGA, DGA, and ACE editing awards, even while generating much debate about its massive, almost eight-hour length.
Was it episodic TV, or film? This series was commissioned by ESPN “30 by 30” exec Connor Schell and perceived by many as episodic TV. “ ‘I’m not doing a miniseries,'” Edelman told me he said to ESPN. “‘I have zero interest. I’m interested in telling a story. I don’t care how you air it.’ Honestly, the whole thing was a complete cart-before-the-horse approach, a leap of faith. We wanted to do something long before we had any idea what it was. I was on my own.”
Sometimes, giving a director the freedom to find a movie is the right thing. Schell gave 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 off with a contract to deliver four hours on Simpson by 2015. Nobody ever told him to make it shorter. The unique assignment burgeoned from four to almost eight hours, which were broken into uneven episodes.
Most documentaries these days are backed by television (with the notable exception of A24’s Oscar-winner “Amy”) and play theaters only in order to qualify for the Oscar. The real question, in a digital world where the Academy is holding on tight to the designation “documentary film,” is whether enough Oscar voters will put in the time to see the entire thing. Anyone who watches “O.J.” Made in America” knows it’s an extraordinary achievement.
“I Am Not Your Negro” (Raoul Peck, Magnolia/Independent Lens, February 3)
Toronto launched 62-year-old Raoul Peck’s artful and riveting James Baldwin portrait, where it won the People’s Choice Award. When Magnolia finally opened the film February 3 with considerable media acclaim, it scored big at the box office. Thus the movie is fresh on voters’ minds, and is gaining momentum.
Peck addresses race relations in America, working from an unfinished manuscript (“Remember This House”) by the eloquent 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.
Hollywood do-good liberals may not accept Peck and Baldwin’s criticism of the “lie of their pretended humanism” in such lauded ’60s classics as “The Defiant Ones” and “In the Heat of the Night,” which produced images of black and white reconciliation that were designed “not to trouble but to reassure.”
The film landed on the DOC NYC Shortlist, and scored Gotham, Independent Spirits, Cinema Eye, and IDA Feature Award Nominations, where it won Best Writing, and won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the People’s Choice Award.
Photo by Marion Curtis/StarPix/for Ne/REX/Shutterstock
“13th” (Ava DuVernay, Netflix, October 7)
The New York Film Festival picked “13th,” a powerful (and timely) examination of the U.S. treatment of African-Americans post-slavery by Ava DuVernay, 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 raises 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 nabbed critics’ raves. DuVernay constructs a strong argument in this agitprop exercise, leavening her interviews with experts with innovative graphics.
Read more Three Women Rock Stars Who Run the Fast-Changing Documentary World
After debating the issue, DuVernay finally decided to include Donald Trump in the film. “I felt eager to share this material before folks made their decisions to vote,” DuVernay told me at the IDA Screening Series. “The October 7 release was just in the nick of time to enter the conversation and ask people to interrogate these issues.”
Netflix began streaming the documentary day-and-date with its theatrical release, 25 days before Election Day. Netflix’s marketing team, along with social media savant DuVernay, rode the post-election zeitgeist to create urgency for watching this movie, with boosts from DuVernay mentor Oprah Winfrey.
The film won the African American Film Critics Association, Satellite Award, three Critics Choice TV/Streaming awards, scored the IDA Best Video Source Award, and the BAFTA.
“Life, Animated” (Roger Ross Williams, The Orchard and A&E IndieFilms, July 1)
This well-reviewed and moving coming-of-age portrait of Owen Suskind, an autistic child who grew up with Disney movies and learned to live on his own as an adult, is sensitively directed by documentary veteran Roger Ross Williams, who also won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short in 2010. He figured out how to get Suskind to engage naturally with DP Tom Bergman, and cleverly used animation to capture his subject’s vibrant inner emotional life.
“It was this sort of a natural arc of events that were going to happen which everyone goes through in their life,” Williams told me after an IDA Documentary Series screening. “Everyone graduates, everyone moves out one day on their own, everyone falls in love. Because Owen has autism and because he has these struggles, it’s even more edge-of-your-seat. Is he going to make it? How is he going to do out there on his own? As someone says in the film, ‘Life is not a Disney film, and he has to confront all the things that adults confront,’ which you know is sex and heartbreak.”
The winner of the Sundance U.S. Documentary Directing Award went on to collect more kudos, including IDA, Critics Choice, and Cinema Eye Honors, audience award winner at the Full Frame Documentary and San Francisco International Film Festivals, and PGA and DGA nominations.
“Fire at Sea” (Gianfranco Rosi, Kino Lorber, October 21)
Berlin launched this Golden Bear-winning immigration exposé, which scored nominations from the IDA Awards and Cinema Eye Honors and was submitted by Italy as its foreign Oscar submission.
For this unique and timely story, director-cinematographer Gianfranco Rosi roamed with his camera for a year on the Italian island of Lampedusa, close to the coast of Africa, where for 20 years some 100,000 refugees have washed up, most recently in horribly crowded boats, some dead or dying. He cross-cuts between the stories of the arriving refugees, many of them needing rescue and rehabilitation, and the “normal” life of a young boy roaming the island with his slingshot, climbing trees, visiting his fisherman-father’s boat, eating meals in his home kitchen, getting treated for a lazy eye.
“Whenever I am in a place to make a film, I know absolutely nothing about what I am going to do,” Rosi told me at an IDA Q&A. “I have to adjust myself to a condition, and I enter a place with a blank mind and completely no idea of what’s going to be in the film. The film, somehow, becomes a long journey of discovering things. For me, being with the camera is like a scientist looking at a microscope and discovering a reality that you cannot see with your eyes. I have to film with my eye. The camera is a part of my body, and everything always starts with this eyepiece, where you are discovering the frame. That frame becomes everything. It becomes the story you want to tell. It takes a long, long time.”
One boat arrived with a hold full of death. The filmmaker felt it was his duty to show what was down there, and he took his camera and filmed it. “It was a terrible thing to do,” Rosi said. “When I came out, everything was broken inside. I decided that would be the last scene I shot in my film.”
To its credit, this meandering, poetic art film lacks a conventional story structure or too much narration, but that also could hurt it with mainstream Oscar voters.
1. “OJ: Made in America” (Ezra Edelman)
2.”I Am Not Your Negro” (Raoul Peck)
3. “13th” (Ava DuVernay)
4. “Life, Animated” (Roger Ross Williams)
5. “Fire at Sea” (Gianfranco Rosi)
Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.