2017 Oscar Nominee - Best Documentary

2017 Oscars Predictions and Winners

*Updated after the Oscars were presented for the feature length documentary and documentary short categories.*

I was able to see all five feature length documentaries and four of the five documentary short nominees. With the Oscars coming up tomorrow, now is the time to offer my thoughts.

Best Feature Length Documentary

Nominees:

Fire at Sea

I Am Not Your Negro

Life, Animated

O.J.: Made in America

13th

Film I think will win: O.J.: Made in America

Film I want to win: I Am Not Your Negro

O.J. was a great documentary, and I totally understand why it’s the frontrunner. But I Am Not Your Negro eloquently explains racial issues that our society is dealing with just as much today as it was when James Baldwin wrote the words that make of the narrative of the movie. Plus, I don’t think O.J. focused enough on the fact that what happened was deadly domestic violence.

Film that won: O.J.: Made in America

I won’t say I was surprised, and I also won’t say I wasn’t disappointed. It’s not that O.J. wasn’t a good documentary, it’s just that I Am Not Your Negro was a GREAT documentary. Let’s face it, O.J. Simpson was part of the Hollywood elite for a time, and Hollywood loves a story about themselves.

Best Documentary Short

Nominees:

Extremis

4.1 Miles

Joe’s Violin

Watani: My Homeland (this film isn’t available to stream yet and there weren’t any showings near me, so I wasn’t able to watch it)

The White Helmets

Film I think will win: The White Helmets

Film I want to win: 4.1 Miles

I honestly thought that each of the documentary shorts I was able to watch was amazing, and I will be happy with any of them winning the Oscar. I found myself partial to 4.1 Miles, perhaps because it was the first one I watched. But I think for me it was inspirational – the boat captain the film follows sees a problem and does what he can to help those in need. That’s something I strive to do, but I’m not always as involved as I should be.

The White Helmets felt a world away to me, and made me feel a little helpless. Extremis is important and relatable, but again I don’t feel like there’s a whole lot I can do. Joe’s Violin is heartwarming. But still, 4.1 Miles inspired me personally.

Film that won: The White Helmets

Although I picked 4.1 Miles as my favorite, The White Helmets was an extremely close second and I’m happy that it won. The war in Syria has been going on for far too long, and the people who have been displaced by the war are now, once again, being persecuted for trying to immigrate to a safer place.

2017 Oscar Nominee - Best Documentary

Fire at Sea

Director: Gianfranco Rosi

Released: 2016

View on: iTunes, Amazon Prime

*Note: This post is part of a series I am writing on the 2017 Oscar nominees for best documentary.

Let me premise this by saying that while the story this documentary tells is very important, the film itself is very slow. It took me three sittings to finally finish it because I couldn’t stay awake, which is really too bad because the issue this film is highlighting is very important. Fire at Sea tells the story of migrants, mostly from various countries in Africa, who get crammed into boats and sent across the sea to try to make it to Europe. Their story is juxtaposed with that of some of the people living on a small Sicilian island where many of the migrants are brought.

The migrants pay smugglers for passage on a boat that is crammed with as many as 1500 people. One of the Sicilian rescuers explains in the documentary that the migrants are placed on the boat based on “classes.” A first class spot costs $1500 and gets you a spot on the boat deck near the front. A second class spot also gets you a boat deck spot, but further back on the boat, and costs $1200. A third class spot costs $800 and gets you into the hull of the boat. Individuals in the hull are particularly at risk and it’s not uncommon for multiple people in the hull to die during the voyage due to the poor air circulation.

The people living in on the island lead quiet lives. A young boy spends his time playing with a sling, learning to row a boat, studying, and spending time with his family. His father is a fisherman, he sometimes the boy goes with him on his boat. A doctor does his best to treat both the island dwellers and the migrants who come in. He is portrayed the young boy for a “lazy eye”, and treating a pregnant migrant woman whose pregnancy is risky due to the harsh conditions she lived in and the difficult journey she took to get to the island.

The migrants come from countries like Syria, Niger, and Eritrea. Their journey across the Mediterranean takes up to 7 days, and they get dehydrated. People in the hull often get soaked in a combination of sea water and gas, which burns their skin pretty badly. When the Sicilian rescue ships come to get people off the boats, they bring them few by few, pulling those with the most medical need off the boat first. Once the ship docks, the migrants are put on a bus and taken to a facility while they are processed through they system. The facility isn’t comfortable by my standards, but it sure looks a lot more comfortable than a crowded boat where people are dying, and I’m positive it’s more comfortable than where these individuals came from.

You don’t go through such a harrowing journey if what you’re leaving isn’t horrible.

So what can you do? Like the ideas I provided in the post on documentary short 4.1 Miles, I suggest checking out the work of the International Rescue Committee. Consider donating to them, and look at their “how to help” section. Also, consider helping a refugee relocation agency in your local community. Some of these migrants are bound to be resettled in places other than Europe, and until the President’s recent executive orders it seems to me that some would likely come to the U.S. In Texas, we have a great organization called Refugee Services of Texas that helps to resettle refugees, providing them with assistance in setting up a home and getting settled in their new land, where everything is new.

2017 Oscar Nominee - Best Documentary

O.J.: Made in America

Director: Ezra Edelman

Released: 2016

View on: Hulu Plus

*Note: This post is part of a series I am writing on the 2017 Oscar nominees for best documentary.

Clocking in at just under 8 hours, O.J.: Made in America is by far the longest documentary nominated for an Oscar this year. I was pretty young when the O.J. Simpson murder trial happened. I remember watching the low speed police chase in the white Ford Bronco, and I remember watching when the verdict came in. But as a 7 year old, I had no idea of the complicated dynamics that went into that trial.

The documentary does a great job explaining O.J.’s history, not only his childhood and career, but also his history of power and control, especially over women like his wife Nicole. The documentary also explains the history of racism experienced by black residents of LA at the hands of the LAPD. More than a third of O.J.: Made in America is devoted to explaining this history.

One of the things I didn’t know about O.J. was the way he thought about race before the trial. He was a black man, but he was also a very talented athlete and he was very comfortable among wealthy white people. In the late 60s when many black athletes were taking part in peaceful protests, O.J. chose not to participate. His thought was that his talent should do all the talking. I don’t blame him for that – there are lots of different ways that people work to fight injustice, and one of them is to prove themselves. That’s the route O.J. took. But the film is careful to explain why he had the ability to prove himself – it was because of the sacrifices of black athletes before him who had to fight to even get a chance to play integrated sports.

I also didn’t know much about O.J.’s personal life before the murder of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. He had three children with his first wife, one of whom drowned in the family pool. O.J. had an affair with Nicole Brown before he was divorced from his first wife. One person interviewed in the film who was a friend of Nicole’s recounted when she came home from their first date. Her clothes were torn and she basically said that O.J. was “aggressive” toward her. But she really liked him. From the beginning it was, at best, an unhealthy relationship.

I’ve spent a decent amount of time learning about and volunteering with survivors of domestic violence, and so for me the story of O.J. Simpson just reminds me of the cycle of power and control that I have seen play out for so many survivors. In the case of O.J. and Nicole, the situation was not just one of domestic violence but also one of race. As I’ve noted in a previous post, there is a historical stereotype of black men raping white women that goes back to the times of slavery. At the time that Nicole was murdered, there was also a lot of tension between the city of LA and the black community – Rodney King had been beaten by LAPD officers and they had subsequently been acquitted. The city had erupted.

So, when O.J. murdered Nicole and Ron (which, to me, and I think to many people today, seems like a fact), it was more than a case of domestic violence. Race was intertwined. But beyond that, O.J. Simpson had enough money to hire the best defense team money could buy. Several people interviewed in the documentary note that this was one thing that separated O.J. Simpson from many other black men who were arrested and tried in a racist system, because as racist as the system is, O.J. was able to overcome that racism with money. Notably to me, the other difference between O.J. and some of those other black men was that O.J. was guilty, and certainly not all black defendants who go to trial are, even if they are found guilty.

The last hour of the film is dedicated to O.J.’s life after the murder trial. It shows him womanizing, doing drugs, and of course infamously committing armed robbery. That last one is why he’s in jail today. But to me, probably the most interesting part of the film was the interviews with members of the prosecution and defense teams from the murder trial, an LA civil rights leader, a couple of the jurors, O.J.’s friends, and Nicole’s family and friends. Several of them, even some of O.J.’s friends, are convinced he killed Nicole and Ron. But his defense team and the civil rights leader do not ever say whether they think he is guilty or innocent – only that the system is racist and rigged. They aren’t wrong – the system is racist and rigged. But even though the system is racist and rigged, in the case of O.J.’s murder trial, the system got it wrong.

I think there are several takeaways from this film. First, institutional racism is alive and well and plays into basically everything in life. Second, domestic violence is alive and well and can affect anyone, regardless of their wealth or fame or race. Third, O.J. Simpson worked hard to build up his wealth and fame, and once he got them, he milked it for all it was worth and he got away with an awful lot.

“OJ reached the top of the mountain, and when he fell off, it should not reflect on black people at all. It should reflect on O.J.” – Sylvester Monroe

To me, the social justice issue that is ever present in this film but is not focused on is domestic violence. It is all too common, and most of the time those of us who aren’t in the home or relationship have no idea it is occurring. It can be emotional or physical, or in the case of Nicole Brown, both. In the United States, about 22 percent of murders are family murders – mostly of wives. So what can you do? First, it’s important to push for laws that strengthen the penalties for being convicted of domestic violence and that help keep survivors safe through the use of protective orders. In Texas, we have the Texas Council on Family Violence that lobbies for these issues. Second, it’s important to call out behaviors of power and control when we see it, especially when it is idolized in the world of pop culture which still happens all too often. And third, it’s important to support survivors by working with local domestic violence victim services agencies. In Austin, I support SAFE and Asian Family Support Services of Austin. I recommend checking out DomesticShelters.org to find one near you.

2017 Oscar Nominee - Best Documentary

Life, Animated

Director: Roger Ross Williams

Released: 2016

View on: Amazon Prime

*Note: This post is part of a series I am writing on the 2017 Oscar nominees for best documentary.

Life, Animated follows the story of Owen Suskin, a man with autism, and his family. The documentary follows Owen as he graduates from a high school program and moves into his own apartment at a group home complex at age 23. He experiences independence, love and loss, and pride during this time in his life. He gets his first job and is even invited to speak at a conference in Paris.

Owen learned at a young age to view the world through Disney animated movies, and has since memorized many, if not all, of them. At his high school, he starts a Disney club that has dozens of members who watch Disney movies and talk about how the movies relate to their lives. In one scene, two voice actors from Aladdin (Jonathan Freeman, who voiced Jafar, and Gilbert Gottfried, who voiced Iago) come to the Disney club to surprise everyone. Seeing the happiness on the students faces is invigorating. It made me think of the corollaries in my own life – what if I went to a Hamilton sing-along and Lin Manuel Miranda walked in? Joy is universal!

Owens parents and brother talk candidly throughout the film about their experiences with Owen as he grew up. Understandably, they experienced quite a bit of frustration. They also felt anger and sadness when the world didn’t accept Owen or made him feel less than human. At one point, Owen’s mother recounts a conversation she and Owen’s father had years before where they envisioned what Owen’s life would be like in the future.

“So who decides what a meaningful life is?” -Ron Suskind, Owen Suskind’s father

Life, Animated reminded me that we all have our own struggles, and that even though some people interact with the world in a different way than I do, we all hope to fit in and be part of a community. I, for one, have not had many experiences with people with autism. I had just one friend in high school who was autistic, and he is the only person I ever went to school with who I knew had autism. I’ve never worked with anyone who had autism, at least that I know of. I’ve rarely had interactions with people who have autism. I’m not sure what that says about myself and our society, but my guess is that we have segregated our society based on what we have determined is “normal” and what is not. That goes for all things – race, religion, socioeconomic status, physical and mental abilities.

So what can you do? Owen was lucky because his family had the means to pay for him to go to specialized schools and life at a specialized group home complex. Many people aren’t so lucky. Autism Speaks is a national organization with many local chapters. They have fundraising walks throughout the U.S. that raise money for autism research and to make connections to supports and services for individuals with autism. Autism Speaks also has a lot of great information to learn about autism that are well worth the time if you’re able to look through them. In the end, I think it’s really about accepting other people, even if they interact with the world in a different way than we do.

2017 Oscar Nominee - Best Documentary

I Am Not Your Negro

Director: Raoul Peck

Released: 2016

View on: Currently available only in theaters

*Note: This post is part of a series I am writing on the 2017 Oscar nominees for best documentary.

In I Am Not Your Negro, Samuel L. Jackson narrates the words of James Baldwin. When he died, Baldwin was just 30 pages into a manuscript he titled Remember This House. The story was to be about the lives and deaths of three of Baldwin’s friends and civil rights heroes, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Through their lives, Baldwin planned to write about the current reality of black Americans, how it is tied in our past and our society continues to perpetuate it.

The film weaves past and present issues together using Baldwin’s words. He explains throughout the movie that the history of oppression in America IS America. This country was built by people who were enslaved and oppressed. The American Dream is achieved only through the hard work and suffering of people who were forced to come here and forced to work. Baldwin also makes the case that the American Dream doesn’t actually exist – the film portrays modern day mass shootings and protests that turned violent after incidents of police brutality and the deaths of black people at the hands of the police.

Throughout the film, footage of Baldwin speaking at universities and on television is shown. He is such an eloquent speaker that my description would never do him justice, so I hope that we will all strive to watch clips of him and to read the words he wrote. In particular, I was very struck by his words on The Dick Cavett Show, where he talks about the institutional racism that exists, and how that may or may not be indicative of personal racism. Regardless, we all play in to institutional racism, and thus we are all responsible for it.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” – James Baldwin

I loved this film, and I hope it goes on a streaming service very soon so that more people have the chance to see it. The issue it most covers is that of systemic racism, which is not an easy thing to change. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be changed. I think one of the first things that we as a society can do is to examine the impact that our institutions and structures on different people in America. For example, we know that poverty is common among communities of color. Why is this? Well, it stems from a lot of history – we as a society have historically oppressed people of color. History is part of the present, so it also stems from modern day reality. How can we combat poverty? Through equal education, affordable housing, access to affordable health care, the list goes on.

Let’s start with just one of these issues: Education. The number of organizations and government entities working to equalize our education system is vast. There is one I’m particularly fond of called Communities in Schools, which pairs up people from the community to students in our public schools as mentors and tutors. Communities in schools also brings in what essentially amounts to case management. We know that children can’t do well in school if they are constantly hungry, or they need glasses, or their is violence at home. Consider getting involved with them in your local community.

 

2017 Oscar Nominee - Best Documentary

13th

Director: Ava DuVernay

Released: 2016

View on: Netflix

*Note: This inaugural post is part of a series I am writing on the 2017 Oscar nominees for best documentary.

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” -Amendment XIII, United States Constitution

13th reviews the history of the United States’ enslavement of black and brown people, beginning with slavery and including our present day misuse of the criminal justice system. The experts who are interviewed explain in a clear and concise way how we got here. History has a way of sticking around – the face may change, but it still lingers.

The documentary discusses how Americans have been taught to believe that people of color, especially men of color, are inherently violent. Of particular interest to me were four examples:

  1. A societal belief that black men are likely to rape white women, and cannot be trusted. This myth is particularly absurd given the fact that many white slave owners raped their black slaves regularly. It has been invoked to justify the murders of hundreds if not thousands of black men throughout our history. One of the most famous examples is the murder of Emmett Till, a 14 year old boy who was violently beaten and murdered while on a trip to visit relatives after being accused of whistling at a white woman in 1955. His murderers were acquitted by an all-white jury.
  2. The use of mandatory minimums and disallowance of parole for individuals convicted of even minor drug offenses. A stark example of the racism our country has put forth through drug policy is that of mandatory minimums for crack vs powder cocaine offenses. African Americans are more likely to be arrested for crack offenses. Federal law requires the same mandatory minimum for 1 gram of crack as for 18 grams of powder cocaine – until 2010, the disparity was 1 gram of crack to 100 grams of powder cocaine.
  3. Recent murders of black Americans, particularly black men, by peace officers and individuals who are acting under stand your ground laws, for simply walking down the street, asking questions, or running away. This has been happening for years, but has been spotlighted in the past few years. Say their names: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown...the list goes on.
  4. The prison industrial complex. 13th explains how the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Correctional Corporation of America (CCA) worked in the states to pass laws like SB 1070 in Arizona, which allowed law enforcement to stop anyone who even “looked” like they might be undocumented. ALEC has also been working on bills to privatize probation and parole activities, according to the documentary. Laws like this are not meant to keep us safe – they have allowed for some people to get rich by locking people away for minor crimes, and sometimes for no crime at all.

13th discusses these incidents and many more as it tells the story of how our modern systems perpetuate racism against people of color in the United States. I really liked this documentary because it does a great job of tying our racist history to present day, and helps to open our eyes so that we can start asking more questions about current events.

So what can you do? I find that the Black Lives Matter movement keeps a good pulse on current events and organizes a lot of activities at local levels. At the national level, the ACLU is a great organization to follow. And here in Texas, where I live, we are lucky to have the Texas Jail Project, which works to improve conditions for people who are incarcerated in Texas county jails. I encourage everyone to check out these organizations to identify actions you can take and, if possible, to donate money to their efforts.