Oscars: A Documentary Race for the Ages
Will La La Land dance its way to the Best Picture win? Does Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea have enough momentum to sway voters? Can Hidden Figures or Fences pull a Super Bowl level come from behind upset? As film lovers and pundits engage in debates comparing the merits of the various Academy Award nominees, my gaze has been firmly placed on the Documentary Feature category.
Easily one of the most compelling races at this year’s Oscars, the documentary category is not only fascinating for what got in, but also what was left out. You know it is a hell of a phenomenal year when films like Cameraperson, Weiner, Tickled, Nuts! , Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, God Knows Where I Am and Tower all find themselves on the outside looking in. If there was any year to make a case for expanding the documentary category to ten slots, it would be this one. Not that picking a winner would be any easier. As we can see with the five nominees vying for the Oscar, a valid case can be made for each one of them taking home the golden statue:
To say Ava DuVernay had a fantastic year is putting it mildly. Not only did production begin on her big budget film A Wrinkle in Time, but her executive produced series Queen Sugar debut to critical acclaim; and her stirring documentary 13th opened the eyes of many to the realities of America’s mass incarceration problem. Skillfully examining the ways in which an exception clause in the 13th Amendment of the Constitution has been used to perpetuate a new form of slavery via the prison system, DuVernay’s film is a revelation. In a year that was consumed by a controversial presidential election, where one of the candidates frequently used rhetoric that aligned African Americans with the inner cities and crime, and racial tensions that lead many to take to the streets in protest, tapping into the unhealthy union of government manipulation and corporate greed via the for-profit prisons systems, it is easy to see why DuVernay could walk away with the award.
Fire at Sea
As if a film about the global migrant crisis was not already timely enough, President Trump’s attempted travel ban on certain refugees is bound to be on voters’ minds while watching Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea. Observing life on the Italian island of Lampedusa through the eyes of 12-year-old resident Samuele, and juxtaposing it with the plight of hundreds of thousands of African and Middle Eastern migrants as they descend upon the island, Fire at Sea raises many questions about immigration and humanity. Rosi’s film is one of four nominated documentaries to touch on the issue of race and it is the most experimental in regards to overall execution. The experimental tone may also appeal to Academy members who would have placed their vote for the equally artistic film Cameraperson, which I adored much more, had that film been nominated. While I was not as taken with Fire at Sea as others were, I would not be surprised to see Rosi hoist the statue on Oscar night.
I Am Not Your Negro
Bringing James Baldwin’s unfinished novel to life, through archival interviews and the author’s own writing, Raoul Peck’s envisioning of what the book would have been is nothing short of breathtaking. Offering an honest portrait of race in America through the lives of Baldwin’s friends Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X, I Am Not Your Negro is a cinematic essay that not only looks at those who are oppressed, but turns the inquisitive spotlight back on the oppressors. Just as Baldwin shows he is not going to fit in the confines of what others expect of him, Peck’s film forces the audience to question their own notions and bias around race. Similar to 13th and O.J.: Made in America, it is a film that will have viewers looking at the current state of America in a whole new light. One of the best films of the year, I Am Not Your Negro is a must-see regardless of whether or not it wins the Oscar.
Think La La Land is the only film to celebrate the magic of cinema? Roger Ross Williams’ Life, Animated is as much a celebration of Disney’s animated films as it is a heartwarming coming of age tale about a young man, Owen Suskind, learning to live with Autism. An inspirational tale of perseverance, the film has that feel good allure that help documentaries such as 20 Feet from Stardom attain Oscar glory. While Autism is an important topic that should be explored much further on screen, another thing that the film has in its favor is that it is the only film in this category not to discuss race in any form. There is a possibility, though a slim one, that the other four films could split voters, leaving Life, Animated to pull the upset.
O.J.: Made in America
If James Baldwin proclaimed to white America that “I Am Not Your Negro”, then O.J. Simpson is the perfect counterpoint to that. As we see in Ezra Edelman’s sensational documentary O.J.: Made in America, O.J. Simpson did everything he could to fit in, including ignoring the harsh realities of what it is like to be a black man in America. Of course, when he found himself on trial for murder, it was the same community that he once denied, a community angered by years of police and racial injustice, who rallied around him. Unfolding over the course of a brisk seven hours, Edelman’s film is a sprawling and hypnotic look how celebrity, race, and politics. 20 years later and the impact of the “trial of the century” can still be felt today.
Who Will Win? Considering my spotty record with Oscar pools over the last few years, my prediction should be taken with a grain of salt. Personally I would love to see both O.J.: Made in America and I Am Not Your Negro share the prize, but chances are good there will only be one winner this year. As a result, I would put my money on O.J.: Made in America. It is an exceptional film whose commentary on race, law enforcement and celebrity obsession feels especially relevant under a Trump presidency. For those looking for an upset pick, you would be wise to pick the equally timely Fire at Sea on you Oscar pool ballot.
This piece is part of the LAMB Devours the Oscars series over at the LAMB.