Despite its best attempts to sabotage the occasion by almost crowning the wrong movie, this year’s Oscars will go down in history in terms of diversity, primarily thanks to Moonlight. But there was one Oscar category that had a different diversity problem. Four out of the five films competing for best documentary feature were made by African-Americans: Ezra Edelman’s winning OJ: Made in America; Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro; Ava DuVernay’s 13th; and Roger Ross Williams’s Life, Animated. The marginalised white film-making community had to make do with the Italian entry, Gianfranco Rosi’s immigration film Fire at Sea, which was still about Africans.
How to explain this anomaly? Was it simply a vintage year for African-American documentary? Was it the Academy compensating for the #OscarSoWhite debacle of the preceding two years? Or could we see it as as a sign that something has fundamentally changed?
The nominated film-makers themselves are reluctant to attach too much significance to the Oscars. Raoul Peck puts it down to “coincidence. Sheer coincidence.” Ezra Edelman agrees – “There’s no real ‘there’ there. There’s four different black film-makers who have a track record of making films in their own way, who happen to have made four cogent, well-received films in the same year.” Ava DuVernay is more interested in the fact that best documentary feature being dominated by black film-makers is news “when we’re looking at a category that for years has been dominated by non-black film-makers, and that’s never been a story”.
But what’s striking is that, with the exception of Roger Ross Williams, these directors have all made documentaries dealing with facets of African-American history. And as we all know, race relations in America are not in a good place – #OscarSoWhite was just the tip of a great white iceberg.
In tandem with debates over representation in the film industry, the landscape outside has been riven by racially motivated killings, police brutality, racial injustice, riots, protests and counter-protests, all exacerbated by a white supremacist movement that’s travelled all the way to the White House. In this light, African-American documentary is a powerful tool. If you wanted to unpick America’s creation myths, in fact, it’s hard to think of a better triple bill.
As James Baldwin, one of America’s most eloquent and incisive writers on race, says in I Am Not Your Negro, “the history of the Negro in America is the history of America, and it is not a pretty one.” What’s at stake is the control of history. The authority to reframe it, reinterpret it, rewrite it.
“Baldwin said history is not the past; history is the present,” says Peck. “You are your history. It’s something that is always moving and, by the way, it is not multiple histories – we have exactly the same history. We are seeing it from different angles. What Baldwin tells us is we all need to teach our part of that history and take our responsibility for it.”
DuVernay’s 13th also looks to the past to understand, and hopefully alter, the present. Taking its title from a “loophole” in the US constitution that abolishes slavery “except as a punishment for a crime”, her film highlights the alarming rise in the US of prisoner numbers, disproportionately African-American, and with it, a disturbing prison-industrial complex. DuVernay ties this back to the roots of slavery, racism and the myth of African-American criminality. The latter has been perpetuated in modern times, 13th forcefully argues, by vested interests, by popular culture and by successive politicians, right up to both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
In reconfiguring history, these films also reconfigure the world of images. All three of these documentaries rely heavily on archive footage, existing movies, news reports and footage. 13th takes clips from DW Griffiths’s notoriously racist epic The Birth of a Nation from 1915 as well as other silent movies; I Am Not Your Negro juxtaposes tourist promotional films with footage of the 1965 Watts riots, and sunny, sentimental Hollywood musicals with images of lynchings. Baldwin describes Doris Day and Gary Cooper as “two of the most grotesque appeals to innocence the world has ever seen”.
Along with those archive materials, documentarians now have new sources. All three films, for example, include videotaped footage of the police beating of Rodney King in 1991, which sparked the 1992 Los Angeles riots. It’s hardly surprising: the recording, shot by a bystander from a nearby balcony, was incontrovertible evidence of the racially motivated police brutality African-Americans knew had never gone away. It is as important to American history as the Zapruder film of the John F Kennedy assassination.
Ava DuVernay points out that, just 50 years ago, the only African-Americans with access to movie cameras were those who went to film school. Now everyone has a camera in their pocket, and many more such incidents are being captured. The filmed shootings, stranglings and beatings of the likes of Eric Garner, Philando Castile, 12-year-old Tamir Rice and countless others are providing more hard evidence of the injustices African-Americans have suffered for generations. This amateur footage is invaluable for modern film-makers. You could say it’s a form of black documentary in itself.
“To leave out citizen-made footage is to leave out a huge swath of witnesses,” DuVernay says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s old civil rights-era footage from the Smithsonian or cellphone footage – in general, what we’re talking about is new ways of underrepresented, marginalised people bearing witness to what happened around them, making their voices heard, whatever way they can.”
Curiously, the fourth African-American-made documentary among the Oscar nominees – Roger Ross Williams’s Life, Animated – uses cinema history in a totally different way. Its focus is Disney cartoons, and the way in which they helped an autistic Jewish child named Owen Suskind to communicate with his family, make sense of the world and progress into adulthood. In other words, it’s about as far removed from issues of African-American history as you can get. Does that make it any less “black”?
Of course it doesn’t, says Williams. “Expectations that black directors have to make black films about black subject matter are, to me, kind of absurd,” he says. “As a film-maker, I certainly don’t want to be put into some box.”
Part of what made Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight an Oscar milestone was the fact that it was an African-American movie that didn’t revolve around race. Williams’s film could be seen in the same light. But the director’s status as an outsider is inseparable from his choices of subject matter, he insists. “As a gay black man in America,” Williams says, “I certainly have experienced discrimination, so I identified with Owen’s story and his feelings as an outsider. I feel like a sidekick the same way Owen feels like a sidekick.”
Raoul Peck is less optimistic. It took him 10 years to make I Am Not Your Negro, producing it himself. As a film-maker who has switched between documentary and narrative forms, between the US and Europe, Haiti-born Peck has fought hard to sustain his 30-year career. “My success, or my existence, is the result of almost guerrilla film-making,” he says. “It’s always been difficult, and so it should be. For me it’s not about ‘easier’, it’s about ‘how far can I go?’”
I Am Not Your Negro is the highest-grossing documentary at the US box office so far this year, having taken more than $6m, but Peck doesn’t see its success, or this year’s Oscars, as a sign that things really have changed. “To say something’s changed, you need to look at the statistics,” he says. “Who gets to make films? Who gets to greenlight those movies? Who finances them? This is real change. Everything else is just bullshit.”
Then again, Edelman – who has worked steadily in TV his entire career – recently signed a production deal with ESPN, for whom he made OJ: Made in America, while Ava DuVernay was approached by Netflix to make a documentary on whatever subject she wanted.
“They were very hands-off, which is a dream,” she says. “You want someone to give you money and then leave you alone, which they did.” She’s talking from the set of a $100m sci-fi movie she’s making for Disney. Her very first film was a documentary, though, about her local LA hip-hop scene. “I made it for $10,000, which I would pay for pay cheque to pay cheque, every Friday. I didn’t need to ask anyone to make it. I didn’t need actors, didn’t need costumes, didn’t need a script. Didn’t need anything but curiosity and a camera … ”
I Am Not Your Negro is in cinemas from Friday; Life, Animated is available now on DVD; OJ: Made in America will be available on DVD from 17 April