Documentaries can often be hard-hitting, and that's especially true among the nominees in the category at this year's Oscars. There are a number of social justice lessons the Oscar-nominated documentaries can teach us this year, thanks to the subjects that each of the films examine. And while race in America is unquestionably the most prevalent topic among this year's nominees, with three of the five films focusing on it, it's not the only topic.
The five documentaries up for an Oscar this year are as follows: 13th, I Am Not Your Negro, OJ: Made in America, Fire at Sea, and Life, Animated. 13th, the acclaimed Netflix original helmed by Ava DuVernay, examines how the end of slavery in America ended up breeding new forms of oppression for black Americans. OJ: Made in America takes a look at the role race played in the life and murder trial of O.J. Simpson. I Am Not Your Negro also looks at America's race problem with the framing device of the late author James Baldwin's unpublished work. Fire at Sea examines at the migrant crisis in Europe. And Life, Animated is a personal look at a family's struggle with autism. All of these movies have many important lessons to teach us, some of which are below.
Slavery Still Exists In America
Not in the traditional sense, obviously, but 13th makes a pretty convincing argument that the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, also created new ways to keep black people enslaved in today's prisons. Without major criminal justice reform aimed at changes in drug laws, racial profiling, policing procedures, and for-profit prisons, the problem is only going to continue.
The Refugee Crisis Is Humanity's Crisis
It's easy for many Americans to turn a blind eye to Europe's migrant crisis, and some in this country (like, say, the president) are eager to keep refugees from Africa and the Middle East away from our shores. But these fleeing migrants are people, fellow human beings, who have suffered — and continue to suffer — through hardships that no human should have to endure. Fire at Sea shows the toll of that human suffering up close, and when it's put right in front of you like that, it's hard to deny that this is a problem that affects all of humanity.
Race Relations Haven't Changed Much
When people think of the Civil Rights battles of the 1960s, they typically think of them as American history — something that occurred in our past that we've since moved on from. But I Am Not Your Negro uses text from the 1970s to show that systemic racism is still just as prevalent today as it was in the days of Martin Luther King Jr., and we as a nation need to admit that if we're ever going to see it change.
Everyone Deserves A Chance To Succeed
Probably the most uplifting of this year's nominees, Life, Animated shows one family's struggle with autism after their son stopped talking at age three. Rather than turn their backs on him and give up, they searched for ways to engage him, eventually discovering that the best way to communicate with him was through animated Disney movies. Through their understanding, he has grown into an optimistic young man, and serves as a reminder that everyone deserves a chance to succeed.
There Are Two Americas
While the two other race-related documentaries this year do a great job of exploring the history of black oppression in America and its clear effects on society, OJ: Made in America looks at the more subtle side of racism in America. Specifically, how there is a difference between black America and white America, and how that unspoken divide influences people's belief systems.
The best documentaries provoke thought, and hopefully action, and as this year's Oscar-nominated docs show, a lot of action is needed when it comes to social justice.