As the nation’s racial and political divisions have grown increasingly conspicuous, three of the five films up for the best documentary feature Oscar show that these divides have been here all along.
Ava DuVernay’s “13th” offers a sharp assessment of the for-profit prison industry. Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” revives an unfinished James Baldwin manuscript about the assassinations of Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Ezra Edelman’s five-part documentary “O.J.: Made in America” is a detailed look at the rise and downfall of the disgraced football legend, who was acquitted of murdering his ex-wife in the “trial of the century.”
All three films, ostensibly about subjects related to race, succeed in giving context to the division the country is confronting amid the end of a historic presidency and a growing movement around the value of black lives. The nominations were announced Tuesday, just days after Donald Trump’s inauguration, which played out in striking juxtaposition to protests Friday and Saturday casting the new administration as an imminent threat to women, people of color, the LGBT community and other minority groups.
In “13th,” DuVernay traces the origins of mass incarceration to slavery, the abolition of which yielded a constitutional amendment clause that made slavery and involuntary servitude illegal “except as punishment for a crime.” The Netflix film, which premiered in October, focuses on the lingering racial hatred and fear that spawned Jim Crow laws and segregation. Following the civil rights movement, DuVernay continues to work through the decades, exposing more recent manifestations of racial bias in the criminal justice system and establishing the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement.
On Tuesday, DuVernay thanked the Academy “for amplifying injustices of mass criminalization.” On Twitter, the “Selma” director shared a brief clip, which begins with Reconstruction-era images and ends with footage of Trump, whose troubled history with African Americans is indelibly explored in the film.
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) January 24, 2017
“I Am Not Your Negro,” which hits theaters Feb. 3, similarly examines inequality across generations. The film draws from Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript “Remember This House,” which found the revered author grappling with the deaths of the civil rights leaders, each of whom had been a part of his life. Ultimately, Baldwin’s words — narrated by Samuel L. Jackson — render an emotional portrait of what it means to be black in America. “I Am Not Your Negro”also functions as a reminder of Baldwin’s role as an intellectual and an exacting critic on race relations. Fascinating clips of the author on the “Dick Cavett Show” are prominently featured.
Baldwin died in 1987, decades after the 1960s-era assassinations of Evers, King and Malcolm X. But the film feels current against the backdrop of racial division in 2017, and Peck masterfully intersperses archival footage with images of modern America that help illustrate the connection.
Edelman’s ESPN documentary “O.J.: Made in America,” which also screened in theaters, isn’t singularly focused on its subject, who famously proclaimed “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” Rather, the filmmaker frames Simpson’s fall from glory with a thorough examination of American race relations, reminding us that while Simpson was being heralded as a college football star at USC, the surrounding city of Los Angeles was divided by the Watts riots. Edelman explores Simpson’s refusal to align himself with civil rights causes. “For us, O.J. was colorless,” one former business associate says.
Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever called the documentary “nothing short of a towering achievement,” noting that Edelman’s meticulous look at racial injustice helps viewers on both sides of the debate over the Simpson verdict prepare to relive his acquittal. “White viewers may well experience a new enlightenment and come to a deeper understanding of this moment of jubilation in black America,” Stuever wrote. “And black viewers may well see something hollow in all the jumping for joy.”