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4 Black Directors Nominated For Best Documentary Oscar


All right. Let's move to Hollywood and the upcoming Academy Awards. You might remember - if you're busy on social media - the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite from last year. Well, the Oscars are not so white this year. Four directors nominated in the best documentary feature category are black. Three of them made documentaries in which race in America is center stage, from the writings of James Baldwin to the story of the O.J. Simpson trial. From NPR's Code Switch team, Shereen Marisol Meraji has more.


SAMUEL L. JACKSON: The story of the negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: James Baldwin's words, voiced here by actor Samuel L. Jackson, sum up these documentaries. Ava DuVernay's "13th" is about mass incarceration in the U.S.


KEN THOMPSON: When you cut on your local news at night, you see black men being paraded across the screen in handcuffs.

MERAJI: Then there's Ezra Edelman's "O.J.: Made In America," a nearly eight-hour deep dive into the football star's long and polarizing criminal trial. The film tangles everything up before and after the verdict with race.


DEIDRE ROBERTSON: We the jury in the above entitled action find the defendant, Orenthal James Simpson, not guilty.


MERAJI: And "I Am Not Your Negro" examines American race relations from the vantage point of the late African-American writer and social critic James Baldwin.


JAMES BALDWIN: I'm terrified at the moral apathy, the death of the heart which is happening in my country.

MERAJI: Baldwin, who died in 1987, acts as narrator. Director Raoul Peck weaves Samuel L. Jackson's voicing of one of Baldwin's unfinished manuscripts with archive interviews from the author.


BALDWIN: These people have deluded themselves for so long they really don't think I'm human.

MERAJI: The visuals are a mash-up of old Hollywood films that dehumanized African-Americans, civil rights-era footage and contemporary video of demonstrations over the beatings and shootings of black Americans by police.

NOLAND WALKER: This film is so much about what has happened in the last eight years and also about right now.

MERAJI: Noland Walker's the senior content director at Independent Television Service, which co-produced and helped fund "I Am Not Your Negro."

WALKER: And it's about the country that we always have been and the need to really take a real look at who we really are versus who we say we are. And it begs the question, who do you really want to be?


BARACK OBAMA: So let's look at the statistics. The United States is home to 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of the world's prisoners. Think about that.

MERAJI: Ava DuVernay's "13th" opens with the voice of President Barack Obama. The documentary breaks down how this country got to that statistic by taking us through 150 years of American history in 100 minutes, from the establishment of the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery, to the Black Lives Matter movement sparked by current events.

AVA DUVERNAY: It was a little over a thousand hours of racist violent footage that my editor Spencer Averick and I looked through. It was not healthy.

MERAJI: DuVernay hopes all the publicity around the first nomination for a black woman director in a feature category will encourage people to watch "13th" On Netflix. She thinks viewers will recognize some of President Trump's rhetoric in the archival footage in her film.

AVA DUVERNAY: He says very clearly he's the law-and-order president, clearly echoing Nixon. You know, it's the responsibility of forward-thinking people to make sure that we hear the dog whistle and that we call it out.

MERAJI: In the documentary "O.J.: Made In America," director Ezra Edelman calls out racial disparities in the criminal justice system and the Los Angeles Police Department's history of brutality.

EZRA EDELMAN: I think that's one of the points of this is to have people engage with that history in a way that they never have been forced to before.

MERAJI: Edelman says that history gives more context to a black LA's jubilation over the not-guilty verdict that stunned white America. Jeffrey Toobin, the legal analyst who covered the trial and wrote a book about it, is featured in the film.


JEFFREY TOOBIN: This trial tapped into the racial history of Los Angeles. I didn't realize how much it tapped into the national pain of race relations.

MERAJI: Director Ezra Edelman points out that O.J.'s criminal trial happened more than 20 years ago, but the issues it raised haven't gone away.

EDELMAN: Race in policing, celebrity in the media, all of these things are so relevant today still and in a way that we have not evolved.

MERAJI: Insert James Baldwin quote of your choice here. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIG BOI ALL STARS' "DEAD PRESIDENTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shereen Marisol Meraji is the co-host and senior producer of NPR's Code Switch podcast. She didn't grow up listening to public radio in the back seat of her parent's car. She grew up in a Puerto Rican and Iranian home where no one spoke in hushed tones, and where the rhythms and cadences of life inspired her story pitches and storytelling style. She's an award-winning journalist and founding member of the pre-eminent podcast about race and identity in America, NPR's Code Switch. When she's not telling stories that help us better understand the people we share this planet with, she's dancing salsa, baking brownies or kicking around a soccer ball.