Black Themes And Ivory Hunts: Oscar Documentaries Fall In A Chaos Of Categories This Year


Pity the Film Academy’s 300 or so certified documentarians. They are deep into the tiny meatball-slider part of their year, those taxing months when branch members are supposed to watch their allotted share of some 140 Oscar-qualified documentary feature films, while enjoying a few complimentary hors d’oeuvres, as long as the food doesn’t violate this year’s newly formulated rules on excessive campaigning.

Music Of Strangers Yo Yo Ma

In truth, the rules aren’t all that oppressive. Morgan Neville’s The Music Of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma And The Silk Road Ensemble, from HBO, we’re told, will be holding a tea at the Beverly Hills-adjacent Four Seasons without crossing the line.

But lines among those 140 or so documentary features seem to be crossed in every which way.

Over the last 10 years, Oscar-winning feature docs have generally fallen into one of three categories. Musical. Political. Or, for want of a better word, inspirational.

Searching For Sugar Man, 20 Feet From Stardom, and Amy were of the musical variety. CitzenFour, Inside Job, The Cove, Taxi To The Dark Side and An Inconvenient Truth were more or less political (with occasional environmental overtones). Man On Wire and Undefeated were, for want of a better word, inspirational.

But in hacking their way toward this year’s shortlist of Oscar candidates, due in early December, those minimally fed documentary branch members will have to clear a path through genres and clusters that don’t quite match the old slots.

Probably the most obvious shift comes with the emergence of enough black-themed or black-directed documentaries to constitute a genre all their own. Ava DuVernay’s 13th, a Netflix documentary about racial inequality in the justice system, is considered to be a prime contender this year. But so is Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, a Magnolia film about an unfinished work by James Baldwin. Beyond those, Crystal Emery’s Black Women In Medicine (about black doctors), Dawn Porter’s Trapped (about reproductive rights) and Roger Ross Williams’ Life, Animated (about autism) might get a hard look, especially in the wake of the #OscarSoWhite controversy. That blow-up mortified more than a few members of the documentary branch, of which Williams is now a governor — certainly not a disadvantage when it comes to the picking and choosing that go into a 15-film short list.


Seen differently, disease and the struggle to cope with or beat it could also emerge as full-blown category this year. Life, Animated, of course, fits. But so does Miss Sharon Jones!, about a famous singer’s struggle with pancreatic cancer, from a two-time Oscar winner, Barbara Kopple; Clay Tweel’s Gleason, about the football player Steve Gleason’s experience with ALS; and Andrew Wakefield’s Vaxxed: From Cover-Up To Catastrophe, about vaccination and autism.

Under the old thinking, Life, Animated, Sharon Jones and Gleason could have been lumped with “inspirational” (or “musical,” in the case of Jones). In much the same way, Sergey Yastrzhembsky’s Ivory. A Crime Story, from New World Cinemas, and Kief Davidson’s and Richard Ladkani’s The Ivory Game, from Netflix, could probably have been classed as “political.” (Where they would jam up, for instance, against Alex Gibney’s Zero Days, about Stuxnet, or Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s Weiner, about Anthony Weiner.) But, in a new way of cutting the deck, they might now belong in a growing genre of eco-thrillers that this year includes Keiko Yagi’s Behind ‘The Cove’ and Josh Fox’s extensively titled How To Let Go Of The World And Love All The Things Climate Can’t Change—or maybe they deserve an ivory-crime class of their own.

The musical category is still heavily represented, with entries that include Ron Howard’s The Beatles: Eight Days A Week—The Touring Years; Jessica Edwards’ Mavis!; Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami’s Sonita; Jim Jarmusch’s Gimme Danger; Stephen Kijak’s We Are X; and the Sharon Jones and Yo-Yo Ma films, among others. The field is crowded enough that both John Scheinfeld’s Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary, and Kasper Collin’s I Called Him Morgan, about Lee Morgan, are holding until next year.

Shuffle the genres yet again, and Netflix, like HBO before it, may be approaching separate category status. The Oscar-hungry streaming service has 13th, The Ivory Game, Amanda Knox and Audrie & Daisy in the mix.

Still, all of four of those might not add up to Ezra Edelman’s O. J.: Made In America, from ESPN. That one stretches to 467 minutes, and is clearly in a class by itself.

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