Oscar Docs: A Look At The Front-Runners “13th” And “Made In America”

The Academy Award for Best Documentary has five nominees, but the competition has more or less narrowed to two.

The pair of candidates includes “13th” and “O.J.: Made in America.” In both films, race is a central matter that’s deeply explored and well connected to their respective core subjects.

“Made in America,” for example, follows the rise and fall of NFL star O.J. Simpson and uses the racial history over the span of his stardom and trial to explore the public’s response. Meanwhile, “13th” is a well-studied look at the aftermath in the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and how it’s led to mass incarceration through the decades.

The latter, directed by Ava DuVernay, is an hour and 40 minutes and plays out like a long-form report that provides both statistics and anecdotal interviews to detail the issue. In a way, the documentary works like a fine tooth comb, running over everything from the portrayal of African Americans in the media soon after the Civil War, to the Civil Rights movement and then to legislation such as reforms by President Bill Clinton. The film documents events all the way to recent activity, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and multiple police shootings in the past few years.

Van Jones, one of the experts interviewed in “13th.”

As a result, the film not only gives a look into America’s racial history, but also the country’s prison system. Audiences are able to get a glimpse of how mass incarceration has not only expanded in the United States, but also how it’s become a profit maker in certain cases.

Cory Greene, an activist interviewed for “13th.”

The film also includes a variety of interviews, both to provide evidence to what’s being examined but also to provide numerous opinions on the subject matter. While it includes so many interviews and  a great deal of information, such as the growing law and order policies from Nixon to Reagan and Clinton, the movie never feels too bloated. The film comes together and the subject is thoroughly explored in an extraordinarily timely manner.

The time difference is considerably different with “O.J.: Made in America,” which clocks in at seven hours and 47 minutes. Originally the picture, directed by Ezra Edelman, was broadcast in a multi-part series on ESPN and as a whole is one of the longest films to be nominated.

A screenshot from “Made in America” during Simpson’s trial.

Similar to “13th,” the movie extensively explores its subject matter and provides various viewpoints on the issue. The movie follow’s Simpson’s time at the University of Southern California, his professional career, his relationship with Nicole Brown Simpson, the infamous trial and his later fall in life.

As this is going on, the movie also makes notes of racial tensions and actions by police, specifically in Los Angeles. As a result, viewers are able to connect the dots between the trial, the media’s attention and the varying public perceptions.

Prosecutor Marcia Clark, one of the individuals interviewed for “Made in America.”

While the movie does explore these subjects, though, somewhat of a flaw in “Made in America” is what occurs in the latter portion of the picture. Once the trial is ‘over’ in the movie, the picture takes much more of a look on Simpson’s behavior and his more recent imprisonment. This portion seemed to be lacking in comparison to its earlier counterparts, partly because there isn’t the intrigue that Simpson’s initial rise and original trial had, but also because the aspects of police policies and racial issues become less explored.

This aspect, along with the fact that “13th” gives an audience a look into a problem that hasn’t gotten as much attention, puts DuVernay’s film ahead of “Made in America” in my own opinion. If I was an Oscar voter, “13th” would likely have my endorsement.

With that said, both movies are interesting and tell very interesting, complex stories in comprehensive ways. If you get a good amount of time on your hands, either film or both are worth checking out.