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No documentary feature ever has been nominated for the best picture Oscar. Think about that. Nine foreign-language films, from 1937’s Grand Illusion to 2012’s Amour, have made the cut. And three animated movies — 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, 2009’s Up and 2010’s Toy Story 3 — have been so anointed.
But the Academy, which instituted a separate, if not quite equal, category for feature documentaries in 1942, never has seen fit to invite doc filmmakers to sit at the main table — even as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 won Cannes’ Palme d’Or in 2004, and other docs regularly made critics’ year-end top 10 lists.
Moore himself tried to break into the best picture circle with Fahrenheit, which, having grossed $222.4 million, still reigns as the most commercially successful doc of all time. Having won an Oscar for 2002’s Bowling for Columbine, he decided not to enter Fahrenheit in the doc race (in part because he planned a one-night pay-per-view showing before the 2004 presidential election, which would have made the film ineligible for doc consideration under the Academy regulations at the time). Eyeing a best picture nom, the Weinsteins, who were distributing the film, said, “Fahrenheit keeps breaking the rules, and we hope to continue that trend at the Oscars.” But while the film was eligible for the best picture prize, it failed to secure a nomination.
Since then, the fact that docs have been restricted to their own category has become increasingly ironic because so many of the narrative features considered Oscar-worthy often are fact-based dramas that have been given the added gloss of mainstream stars and inviting production values. Some of them are even new versions of stories that documentary filmmakers were the first to tell. This year, for example, Jeff Nichols’ Loving — starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as the couple whose marriage led to the Supreme Court ruling striking down miscegenation laws — drew inspiration from Nancy Buirski’s 2011 doc The Loving Story. And Oliver Stone’s Snowden dramatizes the making of Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning doc, Citizenfour.
With HBO, Showtime and PBS as well as Netflix and Amazon and even CNN and ESPN pumping funds into the doc arena, the field is richer than ever. It’s easy to argue that the best docs are every bit as compelling as the best narrative features.
Plus, documentaries, which tend to be critical of the status quo, could have an important role to play this year as Hollywood considers its response to the incoming Trump administration. Ever since the election, speculation has been growing over Whether Hollywood, as it recovers from the shock, could use the Oscars to send a message. Speculates one Academy member, “Before the election, I would have said the Academy would go for La La Land. Now I think they’ll go for something like Fences.”
But if the Academy wants to send a pointed political message, there are any number of docs that fit the bill. Ava DuVernay’s 13th, which opened the New York Film Festival, is a passionate polemic, in the best sense of the word, against mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex. Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro is an eloquent essay about the black man in America, using the words of James Baldwin as read by Samuel L. Jackson. Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea (which also is the Italian entry in the foreign-language race) focuses on Europe’s immigrant crisis. Alex Gibney’s Zero Days is a chilling exposé about cyberwar. Josh Kriegman and Elyse Sternberg’s Weiner is a look, alternatively comic and appalling, at Anthony Weiner’s 2013 run for mayor of New York that took on an added fascination after Weiner’s laptop and its emails surfaced in the waning days of this year’s presidential election.
And then there’s Ezra Edelman’s 7½-hour magnum opus, O.J.: Made in America, funded by ESPN. An expansive study of the life and career of O.J. Simpson — encompassing but not limited to his 1995 murder trial — it always was intended as a “really long film,” says Edelman: “Fundamentally, the story was going to be about race, but what I quickly learned is how many more things it’s about: gender and masculinity, domestic abuse, the criminal justice system, celebrity, the media.”
Because of its running time, O.J. required a special dispensation for documentary consideration and is awaiting a ruling on its best picture eligibility (to qualify, a film must have three screenings per day, but that’s impossible in the case of O.J.). In the best of all possible worlds, though, it should be giving other best picture hopefuls a run for their money.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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