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Monday, November 21, 2016

A Look at Some of the Finest Documentaries of 2016 (So Far)

I know we're still early in award season (and there are many last minute contenders still to come), but I think it's safe to say that documentaries are killing the game this year. Yet sadly, there's only ever one specific full length documentary category per major award. Meanwhile, there's about 9,786 non-documentary awards.

Put this on record, though: Documentarians are doing some of the best journalism we've seen in years. And getting the least amount of credit for it.

But I digress. This is not supposed to be a rant. In fact, I want to celebrate all the wonderful docs I've seen so far that deserve recognition. Here's what the documentay report card looks like so far:

Directors: Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk
Review: A long overdue cinematic narrative exploring the unfortunate epidemic of sexual assault against young women in high school and college, Audrie & Daisy explores how we discuss the issue, factors unique to millenials (cyberbullying, etc). and its emotional aftemath. The film studies two recent cases involving Audrie Pott, a 15-year-old California student whose assault and subsequent harassment from her peers led her to commit suicide, and Daisy Coleman, a 14-year-old Missouri student whose assault led to several attempts at her own life, years of therapy, and severe reclusiveness. In each case, the film also highlights the patriarchal perception--from both men and women-- of "easy teenage girls" lack of accountability, and the role of the media.

Director: Ava DuVernay
Screenwriters: Spencer Averick, Ava DuVernay
Review: Movie maverick DuVernay presents an explosive narrative explaining how today's mass incarceration of men of color represents a new form of slavery in the United States. A film especially timely as we approach a Donald Trump presidency, DuVernay underscores the blatant yet rarely discussed clause within the 13th amendment of the Constitution that abolishes slavery, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted. Through interviews with activists like Angela Davis, archival footage documenting victims (including the Central Park Five, who are still fighting their wrongful incarceration), interwoven with clips of political leaders--past and present--mishandling and/or supporting mass incarceration, 13th tells an urgent narrative  that deserves to be addressed.

Director: Ezra Edelman
Review: Don't let the more than 7.5-hour long run time deter you. O.J. Made in America is the most engrossing documentary of the year so far. Capturing the socio-political landscape of its early 1990s Los Angeles setting, punctuated by the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots, Edelman (the son of renowned activist Marian Wright Edelman) simultaneously tells the story of race that we're still living today. But beyond that, which The People vs. O.J. Simpson also did very well earlier this year, O.J.: Made in America is meticulously researched, painting a frightening yet devastating portrayal of Simpson, and interviewing every essential player in Simpson's narrative--down to helicopter Zoey Tur, who documented Simpson's white bronco highway chase (and also covered the riots at the intersection of Florence and Normandie in South Central) to Simpson's pre-murder trial friends, prosecutor Marcia Clark, author/activist Walter Mosley, and Simpson's accomplices in the 2008 burglary that ultimately led him in jail for 33 years. In doing so, Edelman creates an excruciating story of brutality, civil rights, white heroism, invincibility, and duality.  

Director: Raoul Peck
Review: If you're looking for the most poignant examination of what it's like to be black in America today, yesterday, and every day, then you absolutely need to check out this film. Though it explores the old letters and unpublished manuscripts of poet/author/activist James Baldwin, who died in 1987, this film serves as a crucial call for action over issues that have festered in our society for decades. Peck's thoughtful use of archival footage of Baldwin speaking in interviews and lectures, navigating overwhelmingly white spaces, juxtaposed with similarly today's identical issues, reminds us that Baldwin's words were and will always be relevant. Full review in an earlier post.

Honorary Mention:

Director: Amy Berg
Review: It wasn't released this year in theaters (2015, actually), but Janis: Little Girl Blue is a memorable portrait of one of music's greatest icons--in her own words. Further proving that every beloved legend's story should get a documentary treatment, this film highlights the complexities and inner conflict with which fiery feminist Janis Joplin was wrestling throughout her life, leading up to her premature death at age 27 in 1970. Through the narration of her own personal letters, we hear a deep sadness stemming from childhood reflecting a lack of self-acceptance and a mistrust of her own greatness, which led her down a spiral of drug addiction. What's also interesting is its contribution to the conversation of black musicians in rock. Despite the selective memory of those who consider the rock and roll genre a white musician's game, Joplin herself credits unsung icons like Odetta, Bessie Smith, Otis Redding, and Billie Holliday for helping her find her voice as an artist. That's right: one of the greatest musicians ever was inspired by black talent. Tattoo that fact into your head.


Brittani Burnham said...

The only one of these I've seen is Audrie & Daisy, which I thought was great, though the time line was a bit hard to follow. I've got 13th in my Netflix queue now.

Great post! I'm going to look into these other ones.

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