The documentary category makes history, but not without Oscar controversy

In a landmark time for documentaries, the Academy Awards made history.

Oscar voters on Tuesday announced their nominations for top nonfiction films of the year. And for the first time in what is believed to be any category in the history of the awards, four of five nominated films were made by a black director.

One of those movies, Ezra Edelman’s “O.J. Made in America,” also became the longest — and perhaps most debated — documentary nominee in history.

Those developments represent something of a zeitgeist shift, reflecting both a new racial awareness as well as the evolving 21st-century relationship between film and television.

The former, at least, is not controversial.

In addition to “O.J.,” the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ documentary branch handed nominations to “13th,” Ava DuVernay’s race-charged prison history; “I Am Not Your Negro,” Raoul Peck’s look at black-white tensions in America through the prism of James Baldwin; “Fire at Sea,” Gianfranco Rosi's investigation of the refugee crisis in Europe; and “Life, Animated,” Roger Ross Williams’ portrait of an autistic child who connects to the world through Disney movies. All of the directors aside from Rosi are black.

This has been a rich time for documentaries, as story lines have flourished and new players like Netflix and Amazon have entered the space, increasingly with docuseries; recent winners such as “Amy” and “Citizenfour” have also become cultural staples.

That three of this year’s films confront race so frankly is indicative of both larger cultural changes and a shift within the academy.

“Black filmmakers are getting to a stage where they have no other choice than to spill it out, and to confront the truth and take no more prisoners,” Peck said in an interview. “We’re not going to ask for permission.”

Williams, who is a governor of the documentary branch, said that he thought his colleagues were keeping pace with these filmmaker changes. “Our branch has been trailblazing,” he said. “The documentary community has been about covering stories that don’t get covered much in the mainstream media, and I think we [in the branch] are much more open to issues of otherness.”

That, however, is a recent development.‎ Only two documentary winners in the last 20 years (“The Undefeated,” “Murder on a Sunday Morning”) dealt with black-white relations. One of the most famous snubs in Oscar history came when “Hoop Dreams," Steve James' 1994 film about high-school basketball players from poor black neighborhoods in Chicago, was overlooked for a nomination — an omission that prompted changes in the way the branch selects its nominees.

Live coverage: Analysis, reactions, snubs, surprises and more on the 2017 Oscar nominations »

The nomination of both “13th” and “Negro” was a surprise to some Oscar pundits, who wondered if voters would opt for multiple films about racial issues when the shortlist from which they selected their nominees also contained entries on other hot-button topics such as gun control (“Tower”), environmentalism (“The Ivory Game”) and political scandal (“Weiner”). DuVernay, it should be noted, is also the first African American woman to be nominated for director in a feature category.

But if this year’s nominees were celebrated by diversity activists, "O.J." has sparked a more divided reaction, for an entirely different reason, within Hollywood.

The issue of whether the multi-part ESPN broadcast is a film — what the Oscars are officially designated to honor — has been the subject of controversy since the piece was qualified in the spring and shortlisted last month. The question is not whether there are enough quality scenes in "O.J." ‎to merit a vote — it's whether, in a sense, there are too many of them.

Edelman uses the rise and fall of the USC football star, and his polarizing 1995 trial, to examine the modern history of race in the United States. Since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival a year ago, "O.J." has earned a nonstop parade of laurels. 

But when it comes to the Oscars, quality and eligibility are often very separate questions.

Unlike the other nominees, "O.J.” was long enough that it aired in five episodes on ESPN, a cable network that with its “30 for 30” series has produced many documentaries for television but never sought to qualify for the Oscars before. The company then aired the episodes in prime time, with commercial and episodic breaks, last June, giving it at least the appearance of a TV series.

At issue is what defines television, at a moment when the medium's quality is widely regarded as the highest ‎it's been in decades. Is it a question of how a piece was conceived, where it lives, how it is distributed or of its length?

Or is there a more nebulous‎ standard, one in which the internal cohesion of the piece matters far more than how it's broken up for public consumption? 

The debate has entered the season in some colorful ways, with late-night host Seth Meyers recently weighing in on the side of it as a film. Channeling Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s line that pornography is something you simply know when you see, Meyers noted at the National Board of Review ceremony earlier this month that "If you're watching something and you think it's a film, it's a film. No one's ever watching 'Dance Moms' thinking, 'this is a movie.'" 

But some documentary veterans aren’t so sure.

Sheila Nevins, the longtime head of HBO Documentaries, said while she liked the Edelman work she was unpersuaded it belonged in Oscar contention.

"'O.J.' is a great documentary. Made for television," Nevins, who has overseen numerous Oscar winners, wrote in an email. "Wish I had known you could get these television  series into the Motion Picture Academy," she added. "Just think of the Academy Award potential for 'The Jinx.' Too late, I guess."

At stake for the academy is an issue of great importance. If the group honors "O.J." — and the piece is considered a front-runner to win the statuette come Feb. 26 — it could open the door to a wave of new docuseries from the likes of well-funded entities such as CNN, Vice, Spike and other cable networks laying claim to an Oscar nomination.

Many of the directors of this year’s top documentaries were unwilling to go on the record on the subject for fear of seeming like sore losers, though Williams, both a nominee and a documentary branch governor, acknowledged that “O.J.” posed a divisive question and hinted at at least the possibility of a rule change that would preclude future TV docuseries. 

“We in the documentary community and academy will debate that in the coming months,” the director said. “There’s a mission we have for theatrical motion pictures; we want people to engage in movies in a theater. Right now ‘O.J.’ is nominated. But we will have a debate about that, and I welcome that debate.” (Though many doc films do not get more than a nominal theatrical release, almost none come in at the length, or with the episodic and commercial breaks, of ‎"O.J.")

Edelman, who has long said he conceived of his piece as a film, declined to enter the fray on Tuesday. While acknowledging that "O.J." was “unconventional” in its length, he said the question ‎over whether or not it was a film did not resonate with him.

“The fact that the academy chose to recognize this film I hope ends that conversation," he said.

Another nominee said even more explicitly that he fell on the side of those who believe that a docuseries, if good enough, deserves an Oscar nomination. “I hate any kind of category,” said “Fire at Sea’s” Rosi. “That film [‘O.J.’] has the capacity to bring you to the moment when that case was happening. It was very cinematic," he noted. "If you give me something real, this is what is important for me. True or false. And that film is true."

See the most-read stories in Entertainment this hour »

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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