'Jane's' Oscar Snub Reveals Turmoil in the Academy's Documentary Branch (Guest Column)

Illustration by Tim Peacock

Heavy political projects knock crowd-pleasers out of the nominations, including Brett Morgen's acclaimed doc, which also represents a "missed chance to celebrate a symbol of female resistance."

Oscar’s snubbing of Jane, Brett Morgen’s documentary on Jane Goodall, confounded awards prognosticators, most of whom not only had the National Geographic film down as a lock for a nomination but also as the clear frontrunner to win.

A loving portrait of the pioneering primatologist, the film has picked up a slew of top awards, including the doc prize from the PGA, the National Board of Review and the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards. It also earned the WGA prize for doc writing and the ACE prize for editing, along with awards from 18 national critics groups.

So why did AMPAS reject it? The most credible answer, parsed from recent conversations with doc branch members, is simply that if it had been nominated, it likely would have won.

To understand this rather tortured logic, one has to go back to 2012, when AMPAS introduced a rule change encouraging the entire Academy to vote on the Oscar winner. While the final vote had previously been open to all, it required members to see all five nominees in theaters or at Academy screenings which effectively reduced the number of those who voted to only the most committed documentary aficianadoes With more AMPAS members having a say, rather than just a few hundred doc lovers, winners began adopting a far lighter tone than the oft-bleak issue docs that previously were honored.The first beneficiary under the new rules was the uplifting Searching for Sugar Man in 2013. A year later, the feel-good music doc 20 Feet from Stardom took top honors, and two years after that, the prize went to celebrity chanteuse portrait Amy.

The change in tone has upset many doc branch members, as heavyweight issue films such as The Invisible War, The Square and The Act of Killing lost out to populist films about musicians and stars. Moreover, globally observed Oscar speeches, which could have been used to address issues such as rape, revolution and genocide, instead were spent paying tribute to singers. The notable exception was 2015, when the Roger Ebert portrait Life Itself surprisingly failed to secure a nomination. It most likely would have gone on to win, but by shutting the door to Life Itself from the broader Academy, the doc branch paved the way for Citzenfour, Laura Poitras’ Edward Snowden doc.

That logic appears to have repeated this year. The blowback against Jane’s rejection now raises hard questions for the doc branch, which has diversified dramatically in recent years, adding younger filmmakers with as few as two feature credits. Jane wasn’t the only feel-good flick it shut out — Oscilloscope's acclaimed cats of Istanbul doc Kedi failed to make the shortlist of 15, as did romantic comedy Dina (winner of the IDA’s best feature prize) and Fox Searchlight’s high school dance doc Step.

What kind of nonfiction films should the Academy reward? Jane scored $1.7 million at the box office and is rated 99 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. Should it be punished for having populist appeal? Is the fact that it could have gone on to beat docs about Syria and Russian doping reason enough to not nominate it at all?

Its shutout leaves JR and Agnes Varda’s Faces Places best positioned to take the prize. Breezy and charming, the travelogue sees the filmmakers traversing rural France, creating large-scale portraits of the folk they meet along the way.

Feras Fayyad’s Syrian conflict doc Last Men in Aleppo also is a strong contender. Fayyad was detained and tortured by the Syrian regime, and with recent reports of a return to chemical warfare in the region, the film is topical. And Netflix has been highlighting the timeliness of Bryan Fogel’s doping doc Icarus as “the documentary that took down an empire,” owing to its contribution to Russia’s banning from the Olympics. Finally, it is not outside the realm of possibility that either Yance Ford’s personal story Strong Island or Steve James’ financial crisis thriller Abacus: Small Enough to Jail could surprise.

But in turning their backs on the Goodall portrait, AMPAS members have ironically missed out on a chance to cover perhaps the most urgent issue of the moment: the battle for female equality and empowerment.

Goodall cuts a confident, headstrong figure in Morgen’s epic. Men tried to discredit her, but she pursued science. As Time’s Up hits the headlines, Jane’s snub seems a missed chance to celebrate a symbol of female resistance. Paired with the total shutout of Wonder Woman, it’s not a good look for the still male-dominated organization.

Filmmaker and journalist Benzine directed and produced the Oscar-nominated documentary Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah.

This story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.