Will Win/Should Win: The Oscar Race for Best Documentary

By Pat Mullen

Less than one week remains until the 89th annual Academy Awards! This year is a historic race for the Oscars in the Best Documentary Feature category. As mentioned previously, the slate of nominees includes four black directors—Ezra Edelman, Raoul Peck, Ava DuVernay, and Roger Ross Williams—one of whom will likely win. Adding to the excitement, and to the suspense of the big night, is the fact that the frontrunner for the Oscar might not even be a film! Voting closes today, so here’s a rundown of the five nominees with povs on which docs will win, could win, and should win on Oscar night.

The nominees, in alphabetical order, are:

13th: Selma director Ava DuVernay delivers another passionate and charged take on race in America. DuVernay builds a strong argument that analyses the 13th amendment to the United States Constitution and probes the country’s prison systems to argue that imprisonment is the new form of slavery. 13th draws compelling parallels between the USA’s prison industrial complex and its history of slavery to find unsettling similarities in the language used to incarcerate and enslave American Black men. This talking heads piece is the most conventional of the five nominees, and some of DuVernay’s artistic choices are more clumsy than productive, such as slamming a bold intertitle reading “CRIMINAL” across the screen whenever an interviewee says the word, but one cannot walk away from the film without seeing how clearly DuVernay states her case.

Fire at Sea: Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea might be the dark horse of this race. The new doc from the Italian master has been going strong since it scooped the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival a year ago. The doc is a gripping glimpse on the state of migration as seen on the island of Lampedusa and in the waters that surround it. Rosi spends most of the film on the island itself, showing audiences the inhabitants of the island that is far too small to deal with the influx of refugees who risk their lives and arrive in search of a better life. When Rosi turns the camera back on the migrants, however, and goes inside the boats that claim far too many lives, Fire at Sea is an all-too revealing portrait of the cost of freedom. The striking cinematography and powerful visuals of Fire at Sea are bound to stand out in comparison to the migration crisis doc 4.1 Miles nominated in the shorts category, which tackles a similarly urgent subject, albeit with a far less cinematic approach than Rosi’s doc.

I am Not Your Negro: They say the Toronto International Film Festival is a bellwether for Oscar glory. The People’s Choice Award winner, La La Land, is the odds-on favourite for Best Picture, and TIFF can double down on its status as a launch pad for award season contenders if I am Not Your Negro, last year’s People’s Choice Award for Documentary winner, wins its respective race. This timely doc draws upon the words of writer James Baldwin to create a searing essay on America’s inability to move beyond racial prejudice. Director Raoul Peck draws upon an impeccably research array of archival footage to unpack the power of images in media and film as Samuel L. Jackson reads Baldwin’s essays in voiceover. The doc adds images from the Black Lives Matter movement and recent protests against police brutality within the collage, and the film is disarming in its ability to make past and present indistinguishable. I am Not Your Negro is a vital call for change. (Read the POV interview with Raoul Peck here.)

Life, Animated: If there is one film in the documentary race that isn’t taking home Oscar gold on Sunday night, it’s probably Life, Animated since the doc doesn’t quite carry the same level of urgency in a year that is as politically charged as this one is. Don’t take this assumption as a claim to the film’s weakness, though, since this feature from Roger Ross Williams is beautiful and life-affirming. The film offers a portrait of Owen Suskind, a young man with autism who connects with the world through Disney movies. The doc blends interviews and observational footage with animated sequences that let audiences experiences the world through the filter of Disney magic. Williams won an Oscar six years ago for the short doc Music for Prudence and while a second Oscar doesn’t seem likely, it’s certainly welcome.

OJ: Made in America: It’s hard to deny that Ezra Edelman’s documentary on the OJ Simpson murder trial/media circus is one of the best visual works of the year. The depth and the scope of the doc impresses as Edelman situates the trial within the context of the Rodney King beatings and the simmering racial tensions in Los Angeles and America more broadly that manipulated the case. One highlight of the doc is a jaw-dropper of a scene in which a juror from the case openly—and proudly—admits that she voted to set Simpson free as “payback” for the police brutality against King. What makes Made in America so fascinating is how deeply race became entrenched in a trial that should have been an open and shut case: the evidence against Simpson is overwhelming, but so too is the power and influence of the media as the trial plays out like reality TV.

Made in America, however, also plays out like TV and inspires as much debate in terms of whether it’s film or television as the case did concerning Simpson’s guilt. Produced for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, the doc spans five 90-minute episodes for a running time of 7.5 hours. In other words, it’s a mini-series. OJ is cut and paced for television with clearly defined episodes and narrative arcs that one sees in long-form programming, but the team behind it knew they had a remarkable work and opened it theatrically prior to broadcasting. Add a confidently aggressive awards campaign, unanimous critical praise, and the ever-loony Oscar rules that pay more attention to exhibition than to production, and this made-for-TV masterpiece is somehow eligible. But if the glove does not fit…

Will win: Whether one considers it a film, television, or simply a darn good documentary, OJ: Made in America is the best bet. It dominated the season and took essential wins from the directors, producers, and editors guilds, plus a slew of awards from the New York Film Critics, Boston Film Critics, Online Film Critics Society, International Documentary Association, Cinema Eye Honors, Gotham Awards, National Board of Review, and other bodies, which shows that industry types and critics alike support the doc regardless of the medium for which it was produced. The only question, really, is whether enough Academy voters found time to commit to all seven-and-a-half hours of OJ.

Could win: The likely challengers to OJ are 13th and I am Not Your Negro. All three films are provocative and necessary studies of race in America and, aside from the Oscar snubbed Weiner, received the largest share of support during awards season. DuVernay’s previous experience as a publicist for Oscar winners and nominees like Dreamgirls and Invictus shows that she is an aggressive force for connecting films to audiences and voters, which the film has done successfully since it opened the New York Film Festival and carried buzz throughout the season to its most recent win at the BAFTAs. History might be made if 13th squeaks past OJ and brings Netflix its first win. (The streaming site looks poised to win for the short doc The White Helmets too.)

Should win: The three frontrunners tackle the similar subjects from different angles. Put I am Not Your Negro, 13th, and OJ: Made in America side by side, though, and Peck’s film is the clear winner for two simple reasons. For one, he makes a similar argument as DuVernay with a much greater degree of finesse. As an archival work, Negro draws upon a pool of resources to blur past and present images to ask why America can’t learn from the past. OJ mines an extensive range of interviews and archival footage, and gets some revelations about which one could only dream, but it also has the benefit of a running time comprised of five episodes that are each as long as I am Not Your Negro. OJ is laudable work but another award for it exists: it’s called an Emmy. I am Not Your Negro, in its masterfully economical 95 minutes, is a feature documentary worthy of an Oscar.

Should have been there: Barbara Kopple’s toe-tappingly good Miss Sharon Jones! is a tribute to the late singer and her courageous fight with cancer.

Which docs do you think will win/should win the Oscar?