Measuring the remove documentary filmmakers place between their subjects and their audiences is sometimes all that's necessary to pinpoint a winner in this category. It's why, in a year where we're calling so many other Oscar categories for films that intimately and wrenchingly grapple with the plight of the world's displaced and oppressed people, we see Fire at Sea likely bringing up the rear here—as Gianfranco Rosi's documentary doesn't exactly aim for the gut in its proffering of the Italian island of Lampedusa as a metaphor for Europe's migrant crisis. The film, very much an intellectual exercise, is so often context-free that it resembles speculative fiction, which is one way to explain why Italy also submitted it as their foreign language entry.
Just about the only thing that Eric Henderson and I have disagreed on with regard to this category is which film, 13th or I Am Not Your Negro, is more likely to persevere if O.J.: Made in America's distribution strategy sticks in enough people's craw. Eric rightfully understands that the Academy may feel that it owes something to Ava DuVernay, and that her film powerfully captures a zeitgeist moment. But so does I Am Not Your Negro, and I feel that the film's casual bluntness and focus on James Baldwin's prophetic analysis of racial discord in this country is more edifying and, in a way, trendier—as confirmed by the phenomenal $709,000 it made in its opening weekend.
But O.J.: Made in American is a phenom like no other here. Though conceived for ESPN, the five-part documentary was released briefly in theaters prior to its network premiere. This qualified it for awards consideration during the Oscar season, and given that it won the majority of film critics' and industry awards suggests that few think its presence here is an example of category fraud. The film uses O.J. Simpson and the “trial of the century” as a jumping-off point for, like 13th and I Am Not Your Negro, a study of the systemic racism and the socioeconomic injustices that plague blacks in this country. It's also very much about Los Angeles and its construction of the O.J. Simpson legend. Trenchantly, director Ezra Edelman recognizes white guilt as a key factor in the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, and if Oscar voters understand this not as a blame game but an occasion for self-reflection, then O.J.: Made in America's victory is as certain as Jeff Sessions's confirmation as attorney general represents a slap in the face to black progress.
Will Win: O.J.: Made in America
Could Win: I Am Not Your Negro
Should Win: O.J.: Made in America