A year after the outcry of #OscarsSoWhite, in an award season wooed by a musical about canoodling white creatives, many have been quick to praise the Academy's attention toward black-led narrative films like Moonlight, Fences, and Hidden Figures (the latter out-computing La La Land as highest-grossing Best Picture nominee). But equally striking is that four out of five Best Documentary nominations boast black directors, and three of the films directly confront our country's layered history of racial oppression. With the mainstreaming of white supremacy and the number of hate groups increased a second year in a row, it makes sense to take solace in the feel-good finale of movies like Hidden Figures. But might it be even more important to face up to the realities that led to this point in the first place?
Compulsory viewing for a country in crisis: Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro, Ava DuVernay's 13th, and Ezra Edelman's O.J.: Made in America. These three documentaries expose through a remarkable variety of lenses—literal, in the archival footage spanning place and age; legal, in the numerous policies either entrenching or challenging racist norms; and personal, whether the ire of an expat intellectual or the woe of an inmate wrongly accused—how the myth of America as the land of opportunity has been built on the theft of both land and opportunity from black human beings and has consistently relied on white lies and black labor to keep the dream afloat.
These lies are hardly innocuous, however glittering their packaging. James Baldwin—on whose incomplete 1979 manuscript Notes Toward Remember This House Peck's movie is based—was a film critic in his own right and cautioned against the role Hollywood could play as racial panacea, "designed not to trouble but to reassure." Be it a doleful Doris Day singing in the kitchen or the indulgent train climax from The Defiant Ones, I Am Not Your Negro montages Hollywood scenes of white cluelessness with contemporaneous shots of real-life brutality against blacks, achieving a Kuleshov-style shock throughout. Against a backdrop of lynchings and Jim Crow mania, escapist cinema (of the type still Golden Globe grabbing today) feels less harmless than complicit. As Paste's Shannon M. Houston puts it, I Am Not Your Negro is a "film disinterested in bringing pleasure to white audiences, figuring out white people, or offering up white heroes." For this white viewer, at least, this comes as a welcome astringent, Sea Breeze for a brain clogged with visual platitudes.
Reviews of the three Best Documentary nominations toss out the term "incendiary" so often, one imagines a screen bursting to flames like a reel of old celluloid. Variety's Owen Gleiberman said that watching the Baldwin film is "to feel that the fire is here," and certainly 13th and O.J… aren't afraid of the heat either. 13th is as pithy as O.J… is epic, condensing into 100 minutes the last 150-plus years of state-sponsored criminalization and mass incarceration of African Americans since the 13th amendment "abolished slavery." DuVernay (whose Selma was snubbed by the Academy two years ago) does for the US prison system what Al Gore did for global warming in 2006: proclaim loudly what experts already know, but the powers that be perpetually muffle. With a lineup of talking heads across discipline and party—Michelle Alexander, James Kilgore, Khalil Muhammad, and Angela Davis, to name a few—13th informs as a means to infuriate. When even Newt Gingrich shows up to decry the injustice of crack-cocaine laws, one knows that this isn't some liberal delusion.
Prison also sets the stage for the five-part, nearly eight-hour saga O.J.: Made in America—with Simpson speaking at a parole hearing at Nevada's Lovelock Correctional Facility in 2013. Sentenced for armed robbery, the "Juice" looks positively squeezed dry as he recounts his duties as a porter inside. No matter your take on the 1995 trial, the image of one-time Heisman winner and American golden boy mopping tile and cleaning toilets in late middle-age is sobering. It is hours later in the series that it becomes near impossible to sympathize with the jealous narcissist who continually battered his wife.
But O.J… is as much the story of race wars in Los Angeles at it is the story of Orenthal James Simpson. The Watts Riot of 1965, the police shooting of Eulia Love in 1979, and the 1992 beating of Rodney King are tackled in depth, and Edelman doesn't pull any punches when it comes to O.J.'s willful rejection of black identity and solidarity. (One image of Simpson bro-palling with Trump proves especially stomach-turning; the current president also makes a creepy cameo in 13th). "What are all these niggers doing in Brentwood?" Simpson asks about the protestors in his posh hood after he's arrested by the LAPD. If Baldwin argued that the degraded term was invented by whites out of desperation, and had nothing to do with black people, O.J. seemed to embrace the term as a way to distance himself from the African American community.
Part of what makes this documentary so engrossing is how seductively it spotlights not only the draw of the superstar himself but the way in which his entire selfhood was warped by post-racial hooey. Which is more disturbing, Edelman seems to ask: the vicious murder of O.J.'s wife or the man's undying, ostensibly raceless, charisma?
The documentaries are a reminder that we do not live in a post-race age. And Baldwin, with his own brand of unflappability, points out that we may never. "Is it at once getting much better and still hopeless?" asks TV host Dick Cavett about the "Negro problem" in 1968. "I don't think there's much hope for it," Baldwin replies, "as long as people are using this peculiar language. It's not a question of what happens to the Negro here… the real question is, what's going to happen to this country?" It would be fascinating to have gotten Baldwin's take on the O.J. trial, had he lived but eight years longer; "I'm forced to be an optimist," Baldwin said. "I can't be a pessimist, because I'm alive."
And yet pessimism, perhaps necessarily, permeates each one of these docs, a rejoinder to fantasies of progress that have airbrushed the last eight years. In one of the final shots of 13th, lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson puts it thus: "People say all the time, 'Well, I don't understand how people could have tolerated slavery?… That's so crazy, if I was living at that time I would never have tolerated anything like that.' And the truth is we are living in this time, and we are tolerating it."
If so much of media toils to conceal this fact, at least these three films shake us awake, snap us out of La La Land and into the nation that, for so many and for so long, has never been home of the free.
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