The five documentaries nominated in the Best Documentary Feature category at the 2017 Oscars are unusually eclectic — and unusually urgent. Dealing with topics including race, mass incarceration, autism, and the European migrant crisis, they might all be seen as “issue documentaries,” movies that challenge the viewer to reconfigure the ways they understand the world.
But they’re also all very different, and none of them are totally conventional. Life, Animated, about a family learning to navigate their son’s autism, is the most traditional-feeling documentary, a story told by its subjects. 13th is both fiery and a firehose of information about the US prison system, a damning case and an impassioned plea for change with images that linger after the credits roll.
Fire at Sea, exploring the migrant crisis, takes the exact opposite tack, interspersing scenes from ordinary life with the extraordinary intake of migrants on an Italian island. And both O.J.: Made in America and I Am Not Your Negro trace the history of race in America, but through different means: One is a historical lesson, while the other is virtually a memoir.
That all five are up for the top prize at the Oscars indicates that nonfiction cinema is changing and expanding, with many genres and types of films being considered worthy of recognition. The definition of “documentary” has been expanding for a long time, and that expansion is now becoming mainstream.
And each of the nominated documentaries is worth watching. So here’s a crash course, with some suggestions for further reading.
Where to watch it: streaming on Netflix
As I said when I first wrote about the film, watching 13th, from Selma director Ava DuVernay, is like standing in the way of a fire hose that’s being slowly cranked up to full blast. You take a little more pressure every moment, until it gets to be staggering, a little bruising. Then you turn around and realize the hose is aimed at a blazing fire. And as you gaze at its destructive heat, the pressure and discomfort you feel pales by contrast.
Vital, searing, and engaging, 13th is a primer on the historical context and moral urgency behind a lot of today’s most pressing public issues, from mass incarceration and the war on drugs to police brutality and private prisons, along with an exploration of the motivations behind Black Lives Matter.
The movie's arguments and implications for policy are a matter of life and death, and yet it’s 13th’s images that stayed with me after watching. I’d seen some of the more iconic and disquieting photos, like the image of Gordon, the slave who’d been whipped so many times that his back, when photographed, was a latticework of scar tissue. In July 1863, the photographs of Gordon were published in Harper’s Weekly, and many who saw it — including free black men — joined the Union Army as a result. You can be told about the horrors of slavery all you want, but a picture is worth not just a thousand words but, sometimes, a whole library.
As a filmmaker, DuVernay knows this. And she puts it to use. Watching 13th, it’s hard to miss the point: If racism depends on skin color first and foremost, then images are the most powerful weapon there is when it comes to shaping public opinion both toward and away from prejudice. So the responsibility for confronting the biases and outright lies that images can perpetrate is on the image makers’ shoulders, especially when the portrayals simply do not line up with actual facts.
And, in large part, it’s the image viewers’ responsibility to confront these biases and lies, too.
Beautifully shot and highly lauded on the festival circuit — the film won the prestigious Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2016 — Fire at Sea is a deeply humane exploration of the human cost of the European migrant crisis, and how people live in the midst of it.
And now, in early 2017, it couldn’t be more timely.
Over the past few years, hundreds of African and Middle Eastern migrants have arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa every week. In Fire at Sea, documentarian Gianfranco Rosi shows what life looks like for the island's residents and the rescue crews. The film cuts between scenes of life on the island and the people who help receive and treat migrants.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Fire at Sea is the way it manages to simultaneously be and avoid being a conventional “issue documentary.” There is certainly an issue at heart here: a humanitarian crisis, and the toll on both the people it affects and the people who take in those who land (or fail to land) on their shores.
But instead of having experts and talking heads tell us what’s happening and why, Rosi asks the audience to attend to the individual faces and experiences of real people, his subjects. His best and most potent weapon comes in how he accomplishes that. We spend a lot of time with one young boy, a resident of the island, and his friends and family. The boy and his pals shoot rocks at cacti with their slingshots and repair them with duct tape. He goes home and eats dinner with his family. We get to know him.
And then we see the migrants, pouring into the country, greeted and processed kindly by the residents who work to screen them and help them as best they can. We see bodies of those who didn’t make the voyage and sick people, all with crews trying to rescue them. The sheer scale of the people flooding in juxtaposed with the single young boy underlines the size of the crisis without diminishing the humanity of the migrants by reducing them to statistics.
It’s a moving film (and often a funny one), a portrait of life and the people who want to grasp it.
For more on Fire at Sea, read Peter Bradshaw’s review in the Guardian, or director Roberto Minervini’s interview with Rosi in Filmmaker magazine.
Where to watch it: currently in theaters
The stunning I Am Not Your Negro (which made box office history when it was released in New York) was directed by Raoul Peck. But it was written by writer and social critic James Baldwin — who died 30 years ago, in 1987.
This isn’t a documentary about James Baldwin, though it certainly is about him. Instead, it gives new life and voice to Baldwin, whose Notes on a Native Son (1955) is a considered a classic work of black American autobiography. (In Toni Morrison’s recommendation for Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2015 National Book Award-winning Between the World and Me, she compared the two writers.)
All of the film’s narration (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) was written by Baldwin, mostly drawn from letters and notes he made toward a novel called Remember This House that was never published, as well as other books and essays. By pulling together Baldwin’s own words with footage — both images he would have known well and clips of Baldwin himself, talking with interviewers, politely tearing them to shreds — I Am Not Your Negro creates a document of a country by way of a keen observer and unsparing thinker. It is a cinematic essay-memoir, and a vital, uncomfortable one.
The film consists of Jackson’s narration, combined with archival footage and images from old movies and protest videos, so that it grows from monologue to all-encompassing experience, a trek through Baldwin’s thinking as an observer and participant in America’s rocky 20th century. Peck functions as Baldwin’s partner, or even collaborator, seeing the world through his eyes and helping us do so, too.
Baldwin’s work is noted for its intricacy and complexity, and I Am Not Your Negro is no exception. His perspective on race in America both confirms and critiques the men whose lives form the core of his analysis — Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. — alongside his own.
Baldwin relocated from the US to Paris when he was 24, and lived there on and off for the rest of his life. His outsider-insider perspective served him well: While certainly active in leftist politics and holding strong views, it’s hard to see him as partisan. Baldwin critiques his friends. He critiques the Black Panthers while also noting the way white people have pathologized blacks to make up for their own anxieties. If you’re watching I Am Not Your Negro and not feeling uncomfortable, you’re doing it wrong.
For more on I Am Not Your Negro, check out A.O. Scott’s review in the New York Times or listen to an interview with Peck on FilmLinc’s podcast, The Close-Up.
Where to watch it: streaming on Amazon Prime
Life, Animated is the most conventional of the documentaries nominated for an Oscar this year — the story of how one young man and his family learned to navigate his autism.
The young man is Owen Suskind, whose father, Ron — a Pulitzer-winning journalist — wrote the book on which the documentary is based. Around age 3, Owen suddenly went from being a peppy and bubbly child to being totally noncommunicative, seemingly locked inside his own world.
This was the 1980s and ’90s, when autism wasn’t as well understood as it is today. The family — parents Ron and Cornelia and brother Walter — tell their often heartbreaking story of searching for answers and, eventually, finding a way to help Owen through his difficulties with communication and navigating the world.
It turned out that even though Owen was largely disconnected from his surroundings, he gravitated toward Disney animated films, and those films gave him a way to communicate with his family. The characters and their lines of dialogue gave the family a bridge to talk to Owen, who learned to understand emotion and conversation through what he saw in the movies.
Owen is in his 20s now, and the film also follows him as he adjusts to living semi-independently for the first time, in a community with resources and assistance. He tells us about his experiences, and about how he gradually reconnected with the world. We watch him interact with friends, family, and girlfriend, and learn to live on his own.
The result is a joyful portrait of a family who found their way back together through Disney movies. But even more, it’s a glimpse into ways that autistic individuals are able to participate in society in ways they haven’t always been in the past. As such, it’s also an advocacy documentary: Autistic people are people just like anybody else — they just communicate in different ways. Ultimately, the film tells a sweet and uplifting story while also offering some ways forward.
For more on Life, Animated, read Justin Chang’s review in Variety and read an interview with the film’s director, Roger Ross Williams, in Indiewire.
That a five-part documentary with an almost eight-hour runtime is nominated for an Oscar seems remarkable enough. That its focus is the two-decades-old O.J. Simpson trial feels even more amazing — haven’t people had enough? (Especially since the also-terrific FX miniseries The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story garnered accolades at the same time.)
Yes, it’s that good. Vox’s own Todd VanDerWerff described its mastery this way:
O.J.: Made in America might be the most essential TV series of the year. The five-part ESPN documentary is a rich, dense examination of more than 50 years of American culture, one that uses the O.J. Simpson murder trial as a way to look at race and gender and class…
…Made in America turns the trial into just a smaller part of its overall tapestry. (Indeed, the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman and Simpson’s subsequent trial fill just two of the documentary's five episodes.) It's focused on context and on Simpson himself, on the nation that could build up such a figure and then tear him down.
It's also big and sprawling, and it embraces all the contradictions inherent in its story, finding ways to navigate them while simultaneously forcing you to confront how they reflect the deeply unjust core problems of American society. It's patient, with a brilliant eye for how to use talking head interviews and archival footage to tell a larger story. And right in the center is an argument that might make you a little queasy, thanks to how Made in America forces you to keep turning it over and over in your head.
“Made in America understands that simply by existing as a black man in America, Simpson was a spokesperson anyway, no matter how he ran from it,” VanDerWerff wrote, and that’s exactly right: The project, directed by Ezra Edelman, feels remarkably timely, unpacking many of the prejudices and assumptions that are still animating public life today.
It’s also just riveting to watch, with archival footage, discussions, and a sweeping history of everything that led to the trial, and everything after. (Some rarely seen footage of Simpson in prison is especially startling.) O.J.: Made in America is less the history of O.J. Simpson and more a biting indictment of the country that gave rise to his case, which feels almost inevitable.
For more on O.J.: Made in America, read Vox’s full review or Brian Tallerico’s review at RogerEbert.com, and listen to an interview with director Ezra Edelman on KCRW’s The Business.