Six Documentaries Not on the Oscar List, but That Should Be on Yours

There are plenty of documentary films about people of color, but too few made by people of color get the Academy's attention.

By Channing Kennedy Feb 25, 2011

Yesterday on, Jorge Rivas wrote about the dearth of people of color at this year’s Oscars, and asked if we’re at the cusp of a downward trend back into Hollywood whiteness.

Though the spotlight shines brightest on narrative films, the Oscars also honor the year’s best documentaries and documentary shorts–and the story there is more complicated. So far, the cinema-industrial complex hasn’t found a way to keep brown people out of real life, so there’s plenty of people of color stories to root for.

The potential statue-nabbers this year all deal with race, explicitly or not. "Inside Job" investigates the economic collapse, including predatory loans; "Restrepo" spends time in Afghanistan’s trenches with a multiracial platoon of U.S. soldiers; and "Waste Land" and "Gasland" both tell human stories behind environmental dumping grounds. (The latter, "Gasland," is getting hit by a lobbying campaign by gas companies to keep it out of the Oscars.) The lightest movie on the docket, "Exit Through the Gift Shop," profiles anonymous street artist and immigration provocateur Banksy.

As with the rest of the Oscars, however, the people behind the cameras are overwhelmingly white. The problem is one of capital, both financial and invisible; you’ll get to the podium a lot quicker with a Blackberry full of old film-school chums and a family who can support you for a year with no day job. Even at a racially progressive indie festival like Sundance, the documentaries come mostly from white directors, despite a boom in stories about people of color. In a comment on our Oscar story yesterday, filmmaker and Colorlines reader CLineFilms makes some excellent points about whose lens is used to tell the stories:

In no way am I suggesting that white filmmakers should not make films that feature black people, or that those films are of less value than if black filmmakers made the same films. [But] the films and presence of black filmmakers at the festivals should be celebrated more and supported by industry programmers with the same level of enthusiasm afforded white filmmakers of the same caliber. … If there were a greater representation of films BY black filmmakers, then those films ABOUT black people, which are made by white directors, would also be less of an issue.

So with that in mind, let’s look at who’s not up for a statue, but who should be up in your Netflix queue.


"The Interrupters

The newest film from "Hoop Dreams" director Steve James gets in deep with a group of former Chicago gang leaders who’ve rededicated themselves to stopping gang violence in their neighborhoods.

"The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975" 

Rare archival footage from the first years of the Black Power movement, focusing on luminaries like Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Stockley Carmichael, and Eldridge Cleaver.

"Being Elmo

A profile of Kevin Clash, the busiest black actor on television whose face you’ve never seen–because he’s the hand and voice behind Elmo.

"Number Games" 

British racial justice advocates trek through the U.S., learning how American community organizers have fought for fairness. In this trailer, you may recognize a bit of Melissa Harris-Perry’s keynote speech from Facing Race 2010!


A film exploring immigration through the stories of undocumented youth who are turning 18 and, notably, made in large part by the youth themselves.

"Tony and Janina’s American Wedding

A look into America’s broken immigration system through the lens of a husband whose wife and son are deported to Poland.