Sunday, February 19, 2017

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Documentary

O.J.: Made in America is the best film of the year and is nominated for Best Documentary at the Oscars.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day leading up to the ceremony for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories and more.

Best Documentary

The nominees are:

Fire at Sea
I Am Not Your Negro
Life, Animated
O.J.: Made in America

The first thing that sticks out right away about this group is the presence of three nominees dealing directly with the issue of racial inequality in America. Coming off of last year’s #Oscarssowhite controversy the Academy seems to have course-corrected in a big way, not only here but with three films about the black experience in America nominated for Best Picture and with six black performers nominated in the acting categories. One year does not mean all is well on this front, and there is much more work to be done, but this wonderful group of nominees suggests that work can get done.

This is not to suggest these films are simply token nominations, far from it. O.J.: Made in America of course was my No. 1 film of the year, while both 13th and I Am Not Your Negro appeared on my list of honorable mentions. Each is a magnificent portrait of black life in America, and each comes from a distinct and memorable point of view. In addition, with Life, Animated, four of the five nominated filmmakers this year are black. I cannot confirm quickly this has never happened, but I would go so far as to guess it is incredibly rare. So, due kudos to the Academy. Keep it up. We’ll be watching.

O.J.: Made in America (directed by Ezra Edelman) – With a runtime of seven hours, 47 minutes, this is the longest film ever nominated for an Academy Award. I have seen it twice and would watch it again in a heartbeat. It is absolutely riveting from its first to its final moments. After the smashing success of the Serial podcast and the Making a Murderer documentary series, true-crime stores are more popular than ever, with everyone racing to get theirs out the door.

We have seen The Jinx from HBO already, and my understanding is there is a JonBenét Ramsey docuseries and a Menendez Brothers docuseries in the pipeline. All of these projects have had or will have varying degrees of critical or popular success. O.J.: Made in America is part of this boom but also stands apart from it, as Edelman raises true crime to the level of high art, like Truman Capote with a video camera.

No stone is left unturned, no detail is too small, and no person is above reproach in the recounting of one of the most famous crimes in American history. But this is not solely the story of O.J. Simpson and the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. That story we know well. This is the definitive statement on the racial climate in America that created Simpson and led to the Trial of the Century. Never before have the pieces been laid out so clearly, so thoroughly and so brilliantly.

The myriad feats of this film – from the mountains of research to the gargantuan editing task – make it remarkable this film was even made. That the finished product is one of the most engrossing, fascinating, rewarding documentaries ever produced is an absolute miracle. The resurgence in popularity of the Simpson trial, with this film and the fictionalized TV series, should spur Academy members to watch this despite its daunting runtime. They will not be disappointed, and I cannot see how they could vote for anything else.

13th (directed by Ava DuVernay) – It starts with one clause in the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which outlawed slavery “except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” It was so easy for all of us to miss, but it was always there, staring us in the face: Slavery shall not exist, except … How dastardly! How insidious! How perfect a way for the powerful to remain powerful by keeping the enemies to their power in chains.

DuVernay, the magnificent director who gave us Selma and Middle of Nowhere, does not miss the importance of this clause and uses her film to trace it step by step to the world we find ourselves in today. Every presidential administration, every congress, and indeed every corporate leader has in some way contributed knowingly and willfully to the widening gap between black and white life in America. From the cinema to the schools to the halls of government, no institution is without blood on its hands.

The film carefully connects the dots for the audience, constructing a richly detailed timeline of oppression. DuVernay once again proves herself to be a master filmmaker, here putting her gifts to use in crafting a visually arresting work of montage that draws direct parallels to the overt segregation of the mid-1900s to the covert segregation still in place today. If 13th has a flaw, it is that it covers too much material in too short a runtime. Another 45 minutes to an hour would have given the film more room to breathe and the audience more time to soak in its message. In truth, though, I would watch a 10-hour film from DuVernay on this subject, such is the magnitude of her talent.

I Am Not Your Negro (directed by Raoul Peck) – If O.J.: Made in America plays like a grand opera and 13th like a piercing cry of protest, I Am Not Your Negro is closer to a fireside chat with one of the smartest, most eloquent, and most important figures in the Civil Rights Era. Author and activist James Baldwin died in 1987, outliving his most famous friends by nearly two decades and leaving behind a body of work that adds up to an essential truth about this country.

Peck bases his film on Baldwin’s final, unfinished work, Remember This House, which was meant to cover the lives and assassinations of his friends, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. Peck gives voice to Baldwin’s remarkable prose and employs a jazzy, fluid style that brings Baldwin’s ideas fully to life.

I Am Not Your Negro is unique and beautiful because it could only come from Baldwin, and Peck wisely does not impose too much directorial will on the film, allowing Baldwin to be the star. The ideas are universal and wide ranging, but their power comes from Baldwin, who saw it all, wrote it down, and had the foresight to know what it meant. It is disheartening to see how little has changed from the era when change was the order of the day. In fact, we are slipping backward. If Baldwin were here today, though, the film seems to argue, he would tell us not to lose heart but rather to steel ourselves for the fight to come.

Fire at Sea (directed by Gianfranco Rosi) – Rosi’s sumptuous film is a cinema vérité look at the European migrant crisis seen through eyes of the people on the small Italian island of Lampedusa. While their little island is one of the frontlines in the migrant crisis, the inhabitants of Lampedusa seem generally unaffected, though not unperturbed, by the international emergency taking place on their shores. They go about their lives, making lunch, listening to the radio, taking out their boats, and wandering the island much as if no migrant ever were to land there.

Rosi’s camera simply watches, though in simply watching he produces some of the most beautiful cinematography of the year in any film. The power comes from the repetition and the slowly dawning realization the people on this island stand in for all of us. There are few countries in the world untouched by the migrant crisis, yet we go about our daily routines generally unmoved. With everything going on in this nation and the world over, who has the energy to be so emotionally involved anymore?

Then, Rosi unveils his greatest coup, and we are left wondering how we cannot be involved. He tags along with a patrol sent to rescue a stranded migrant boat, and for 20 or so uninterrupted minutes, the full depth of this crisis is laid bare. Dozens dead, dozens more sick or dying, they crammed onto a boat not suited for this trip and risked everything because no matter what was on the other end of their journey – homelessness, poverty, prison, or deportation among the likeliest outcomes – it would be better than what they left behind. Yet, here we sit, here we know, and here we do nothing.

Life, Animated (directed by Roger Ross Williams) – If we were going to play a game of “One of these things is not like the other things …” this would be the one not like the others in this group. Against three vitally important, energizing films about race and one about the European migrant crisis, the story of a family’s struggle to understand autism certainly feels low stakes. That may be true for the rest of us, but for the Suskind Family at the film’s center, the stakes could not be much higher.

Based on journalist Ron Suskind’s book of the same name, Williams’ film charts the highs and lows of having a son with autism, dealing honestly and openly with a subject few people fully comprehend. The crux of the story is that Owen Suskind learns to communicate by watching Disney animated films, most of which he has memorized. We are told the exaggerated emotions and facial features of the characters in an animated film are easier to interpret for a person with autism.

The obvious problem here is the sense the whole film is some kind of pro-Disney propaganda piece, and there are times when it feels that way. However, the film does not shy away from showing us all the life events such as finding a job and navigating sexuality that have no cognate storylines in Disney. Life, Animated does not rise to the level of the other films in this category – its story is too personal and too specific to be universal – but as a wonderful piece of documentary filmmaking, it is not so out of place.

The final analysis

In all likelihood, this comes down to the three films about race in America, though I would never underestimate a film about the power of film, particularly Disney. But to confine our analysis, O.J.: Made in America has the gravitas to win and has picked up almost every major award out there. 13th has on its side timeliness, relevance, and DuVernay, whose snub for Selma stands as one of the more stinging omissions in recent Oscar history. I Am Not Your Negro meanwhile has captured the zeitgeist and set box-office records in the theaters where it is showing.

Any of the three would make a deserving winner of which the Academy could be proud. All represent the kind of achievement this category is made to recognize. In some ways, though, apart from its length, O.J.: Made in America is the most traditional of the three in its form and presentation, something that could make it more palatable to voters. I am obviously biased here by my love for the film, but I genuinely do not see how the others, as wonderful as they are, stack up, and I hope and believe the Academy will see it the same way.

Will win: O.J.: Made in America
Should win: O.J.: Made in America
Should have been here: Weiner

Tomorrow: Best Documentary Short

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