Why Not a Documentary for Best Picture?

Ava DuVernay's masterful '13th,' an examination of mass incarceration, deserves consideration for the top award

New York Film Festival 2016 opening
Courtesy of Netflix

Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” follow- up, “13th,” opened the New York Film Festival on Sept. 30 and immediately situated itself as one of the year’s best films. Why, then, is it a foregone conclusion that we won’t be talking about it in terms of best picture?

No documentary has ever received a nomination for Hollywood’s top prize, despite true landmarks of the form — like “Shoah” and “Hoop Dreams” (the latter controversially snubbed in the doc category as well) — making strong cases.

In 2013 and 2015, a pair of documentaries by Joshua Oppenheimer — “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence” — topped many critical assessments of the years’ best cinema, but nobody expected noms for best picture. In 2005, “March of the Penguins” became a cultural event that did bang-up box office, but it couldn’t break out of the documentary feature category at the Oscars.

And talk about cultural events: A year earlier, with a Palme d’Or from Cannes in hand, Michael Moore and Harvey Weinstein opted out of submitting “Fahrenheit 9/11” in the documentary feature race, in order to focus on a broader campaign that included a pitch for best picture. They had plenty of money to burn, as the film became (and remains) the highest-grossing documentary of all time. But best pic? No dice.

“Startup.com” (2001), “Bowling for Columbine” (2002), “Touching the Void” (2004), “March of the Penguins,” “Lake of Fire” (2007), “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father” (2008), “The Cove” (2009), “Exit Through the Gift Shop” (2010), “The Queen of Versailles” (2012), “The Overnighters” (2014), and “Amy” (2015) were, personally speaking, among the very best films of their respective years. But that’s a singular opinion, not a collective one.

And that gets to the heart of the issue. It’s difficult to convince a massive voting body like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to agree that a documentary deserves to be up for the industry’s top honor, when these films can so easily be ghettoized in their own category. It happens with foreign and animated films all the time.

Circling back to “13th,” the film — set for release Oct. 7 by Netflix — isn’t just a staggering indictment of systemic racism. It’s also an expert piece of cinema. The way DuVernay moves her camera and frames her subjects, the flashes of the word “criminal” on the screen every time it’s uttered (a device positing the label as a derogatory dog whistle), the way she infuses music to help tell the story of mass incarceration in America — it’s not just talking-head video journalism on display. It’s a visual artist telling a story, and doing so with aplomb.

So why, then, should we dismiss it as a best picture player on the basis of form? Here is a movie that contextualizes a complex status quo — the vast work-state provided for by loophole language in the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — and uses it as a springboard into probing the American psyche. It doesn’t play sides in interrogating the political history of imprisonment in this country, nor the use of crime as a political football, and it presents a platform for substantive discussion about racism and racial bias.

Diversity is sure to be a buzzword all season long. “The Birth of a Nation,” “Fences,” “Hidden Figures,” and “Moonlight” will likely be singled out as opportunities for Academy members to course-correct after two years of #OscarsSoWhite. But DuVernay’s contribution provokes in exciting and vital ways, too. It deserves to be in the mix.