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What to Watch: Oscar-Nominated Documentaries

January 25, 2017

Three of the five films nominated for Best Feature Documentary tackle race relations in America. While I Am Not Your Negro is still in theaters, both Ava DuVernay's 13th and Ezra Edelman's OJ: Made in America are now available for streaming.

 

13th Netflix

Ava DuVernay's powerhouse indictment of mass incarceration in the United States, 13th traces the roots of the problem to the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery in 1865. Except for the pesky consequential clause "except as a punishment for crime." The documentary opens with a startling statistic: 25% of the people in the world who are incarcerated are incarcerated in the United States. (The U.S. has only 5% of the population.)

 

DuVernay begins her film in the Reconstruction-era South, with black freedmen regularly facing arrest for minor or fabricated offenses, forced into hard indentured labor to pay off their "debt." The burgeoning film industry at the turn of the century took another angle on oppression: demonizing black characters in the media. These early films portrayed black men (often white actors in blackface) as rapists and criminals, reinforcing suspicion and distrust among whites. These factors lead to a rise in lynchings and KKK-influenced mobs slaying black men throughout the Jim Crow South. 

 

Following the Civil Rights movement and subsequent legislation in the 1960s, the Republican party began to recruit white southern conservatives to their cause, promising law and order. The film delves into Nixon's "war on drugs" and the implicit prejudice against people of color at the heart of these policies. Mandatory minimum sentencing increased under Ronald Reagan, and Democrats, hoping to turn the tide with voters, began to adopt the same law & order rhetoric. Bill Clinton's 1994 Crime Bill accelerated mass incarceration, already ballooning since the '70s, and proved to haunt Hillary in her 2008 and 2016 presidential runs. Mass incarceration rates buoyed the prison industrial complex, and DuVernay explores the role of prominent corporations, backed by conservative think tank ALEC, in profiting from private prison operations. 

 

The documentary moves fast, a blend of archival footage and scholarly interviews, interspersed with quick jump cuts and graphics to illustrate what ultimately is the lasting legacy of slavery. In a post-Trump era, 13th should be required viewing for all Americans. 

 

 

OJ: Made in America Hulu

 

Ryan Murphy beat director Ezra Edelman to the punch with American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, released in February on FX. 2016 became "The Year of OJ," a full 12 years after "the trial of the century." Edelman's 10 hour documentary, presented in 5 parts, is a decidedly less soapy take on the crime saga. Rather than laser focusing on the highly publicized trial or the murder of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, Edelman looks more holistically at the big picture. He delves into the political and cultural context surrounding the superstar, and takes a hard look at the man himself, both pre-fame and post-infamy. 

 

The film begins by exploring O.J.'s adolescence in the San Francisco projects, and his rise to stardom as a running back at the University of Southern California. Rather than glossing over the details of his meteoric rise, the film (it is a 30 for 30, after all) hammers home his titanic abilities on the field with highlight reels and archival footage. It's striking to those from younger generations, only familiar with O.J. the defendant, seeing his talent on full display. Edelman also contextualizes O.J.'s deferential persona off-the-field during the tumultuous 1960s. As Ali refuses to fight in Vietnam and sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their fists on the Olympic podium in a salute to black power, O.J. remains above the fray, conspicuously silent on civil rights. Interviews with friends and colleagues, like Hertz CEO Frank Olson, portray a man desperate to be viewed outside the confines of race, embodying his oft-attributed quote, "I'm not black. I'm O.J." 

 

As the tale inevitably progresses to the events of June 12, 1994, Edelman painstakingly reviews the evidence of the murders, but also attempts to imbue the victims with a sense of dignity often missing from the countless retellings of the crime. The film places the trial squarely within the powder keg of Los Angeles. A city still reeling from the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots, the film vividly details the systematic racial bias of the LAPD and what it was really like to be black in LA at that time. Edelman explores how O.J. fits into this complicated puzzle, and how these external factors affected the trial and public opinion. 

 

Finally, the last installment pushes further, beyond the verdict, where most O.J. stories come to a close. The audience sees the grotesque reality of O.J. after the acquittal, with the aborted tell-all (If) I Did It, sleazy music videos, and financial crisis. We review the 2007 night in Vegas in explicit detail, including interviews with the parties involved, for which O.J. is ultimately convicted and sentenced to 33 years in prison. Edelman's comprehensive biography is at once fascinating, heartbreaking, infuriating, and bizarre - a convergence of events and circumstances that make up a uniquely American tragedy. 

 

 

 

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