How This Year's Docs Tapped Into the Volatile Political Climate
Contenders range from a profile in judicial courage to a deep dive on reproductive rights to investigations of injustice in all walks of American life.
Hundreds of documentary features have come out in the past year, and while they explore an incredibly wide range of topics and subjects, many of the top awards contenders seem to have something in common: They touch on the current political climate and much of the unrest that surrounds Donald Trump's administration.
Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 11/9 attempts to analyze the root causes of the vitriol of the moment, including the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, that impacted 100,000 people — 57 percent of whom are black. Also targeting people of color are NYPD arrest quotas, which come under scrutiny in Stephen Maing's Crime + Punishment. Fail State, executive produced by Dan Rather, provides a look at for-profit colleges that victimize communities of color, a practice of Trump University, which settled fraud claims last February to the tune of $25 million.
RBG, about 85-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, had its CNN premiere in early September (after a summer theatrical run that scored $14 million), conveniently correlating with the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings that split the country. And Reversing Roe, by Anne Sundberg and Ricki Stern, examines the reproductive rights that could be in jeopardy with Kavanaugh on the court.
"He's saying there's precedent, but that doesn't mean he can't rule differently if a case came forward," says Roe co-director Stern. "And that doesn't mean he can't rule to allow states way more leeway restricting and regulating with their own decisions."
Executive produced by actor Eva Longoria, the Netflix film chronicles the politics behind abortion from before Roe v. Wade, in 1973, when Republicans were firm supporters of choice, to the party's transformation in the 1980s, when leaders saw potential untapped support in disgruntled evangelicals.
"We're seeing trigger laws where, if the right challenge comes up, states like North Dakota, South Dakota, Louisiana and Mississippi would immediately criminalize abortion providers," adds Stern, noting that roughly two-thirds of Americans support the right to choose. "We're starting to see certain cases bubbling up from the lower courts as a result of the conservative appointments. It's very difficult for a lot of women to access a safe and legal abortion due to all sorts of restrictions."
A key Roe champion is the diminutive Ginsburg, profiled by Betsy West and Julie Cohen in the CNN doc. "The idea that the Constitution should be protecting both men and women was kind of a radical idea, but that has become very much accepted in our country," says West, citing Ginsburg's history as a women's rights litigator in the 1970s.
The justice's granny persona paired with her lioness ferocity has made her a pop-culture icon (impersonated by comedian Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live) and the subject of a new feature biopic, On the Basis of Sex, hitting theaters in December, starring Felicity Jones as Ginsburg and Armie Hammer as her husband, Marty. "Women in their 70s, 80s, 90s who are crying and know what she was up against, feel it personally," says West, 67, of audience members' response to the doc. "And then you have a whole generation of millennial women who know about the Notorious R.B.G. [from pop culture] and have shared the memes about her and see her as an inspiration."
As an undergrad, Ginsburg attended Cornell University, then studied law at Harvard and Columbia, prestigious institutions that stand in stark contrast to schools like Corinthian College, ITT Tech and Laureate International Universities, just three of the for-profits examined in Alexander Shebanow's film, Fail State.
"What we have happening today is they're trying to commoditize higher education and apply market-based principles to a resource that isn't like a traditional consumer product," Shebanow, 28, says of the premise of his film. So-called predatory colleges began to spring up in the 1980s, targeting underprivileged students (often people of color), promising career pathways that never materialize and leaving graduates with worthless diplomas under mountains of debt. Spurred under the Reagan presidency and continued throughout the Clinton and both Bush administrations, the practice was curtailed under Obama, only to be deregulated again under Trump.
"The incentives to do bad by students are way stronger than the incentives to do good," says Shebanow of government grant money flowing steadily to these for-profit institutions. "They get money just by enrolling students. It's not based on if the student learns anything or gets a career."
Lawmakers have reaped financial rewards from lobbyists to limit regulations on the industry, but the fight continues. Says Shebanow: "I'm hoping a lot of people see this movie so at least, in the short term, we can stop the enrollment in these institutions until we get another administration that is more responsible and will put in regulations and oversight."
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.