Will Ava DuVernay’s ‘13th’ Become the First Documentary to Land a Best Picture Oscar Nomination?

     October 18, 2016


As far as Oscar buzz goes, there’s still a number of films that haven’t been screened for press, like Martin Scorsese’s Silence, Peter Berg’s Patriots Day, and John Lee Hancock’s The Founder. Nevertheless, the film festival circuit is winding down and some early contenders emerged, like Tom Ford’s return with Nocturnal Animals, and Damien Chazelle’s homage to movie musicals with La La Land. The New York Film Festival added a couple others to that list, perhaps the most prominent being Netflix’s 13th.

Director Ava DuVernay, who gained mainstream notoriety with the Martin Luther King, Jr. film Selma, walked out on stage at Lincoln Center to a standing ovation after an early morning press screening a couple weeks ago. For about two years, she gathered archival footage and interviewed analysts, experts, and activists about mass incarceration and the racial bias towards African Americans. In the press conference that followed, a journalist made a bold statement that predicted the film as a viable contender in the Best Picture category, which prompted a soft flurry of “oohs” and “aahs” from listeners.

13th-posterA rep for Netflix confirmed to Collider that the studio is planning an awards push for the documentary, but the bigger question is, does the film stand a chance? 13th topped the list of nominees announced for the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards with five total nominations, so the film seems destined for Best Documentary consideration at the Oscars. When it comes to Best Picture, however, one of its biggest challenges is history: no documentary has ever been nominated for Best Picture.

According to the Academy’s official rules for submission, “Only feature-length (over 40 minutes) narrative live-action, animation, or documentaries are considered for these categories.” So, yes, it’s definitely possible for one to receive a nomination. Five years ago, the Best Picture category’s five nomination slots were expanded so that anywhere from five to 10 films could be nominated, offering voters the widest selection possible.

Based on information gleaned from experts with knowledge of the process, one reason why a documentary has never entered this specific race may be because some voters simply don’t know they’re allowed to vote for anything other than a narrative feature — the same goes for the lack of Foreign Language films in the Best Picture category. Amour was one of those rare exceptions in 2013, while the only two animated films nominated since the expansion were Pixar’s Up (2010) and Toy Story 3 (2011).

Perhaps another reason a documentary has never cracked the Best Picture race is how they are screened. Studios and PR firms make a bigger to-do about getting their films into the hands of Oscar voters, and obviously narrative films have taken up the bulk of the conversation. Meanwhile, there’s a large documentary community in New York, which likely reflects the differences in Oscar eligibility: While narrative feature rules require films to be screened in Los Angeles county for seven consecutive days, Best Documentary requires an additional run in New York — this is on top of other technical and marketing requirements.


Image via Netflix

13th, however, is a rare case. With Golden Globes and Emmy wins under its belt, Netflix is now going to greater lengths to chase the Oscar vote. The film had a limited theatrical run, and the studio announced a deal with the luxury theater chain iPic Entertainment that will see 10 more Netflix films screened publicly in both L.A. and NYC theaters. But13th also reflects how audiences are consuming documentaries. As a Netflix release, 13th is automatically placed in the hands of millions of subscribers across the nation. Voters often find themselves bombarded by screeners over the holiday break before making their decisions in the new year. With this film readily available to watch now on an easy-to-use platform, it’s arguably in a more accessible position than at the bottom of a stack of screeners had it gone the traditional route

The fact that 13th is attached to a buzz-worthy filmmaker with an emotionally and racially charged message makes it stand out. The film delivers a powerful comparison between the prison system and slavery, but it becomes more poignant now with the current political climate. The story weaves through the Black Lives Matter movement that took root in the nationwide deaths of black people at the hands of law enforcement, as well as the effects of Donald Trump’s aggressive and hateful campaign rhetoric. Many critics, from EW to UPROXX to our own Chris Cabin, deemed it required viewing on some level.


Image via Netflix

Also among those shouting its praises are Mark Ruffalo, Mindy Kaling, Jordan Peele, John Legend, Wesley Snipes, Bobby Cannavale, Shonda Rhimes, Kerry Washington, Oprah Winfrey, and Common. You may recognize some of these names as Oscar voters, while other celebrities, filmmakers, and even political figures, like New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, continue to build up the buzz and elevate its profile. Amy was the last documentary in recent memory to earn such mainstream discussion because it centered around such an iconic singer, but even that pales in comparison to the amount of eyes being directed to 13th.

In the end, the decision as to whether a Best Picture nomination is in its future ultimately comes down to the voters. There have been recent efforts by the Academy to diversify its voter base in response to the #OscarsSoWhite backlash. In December of 2013, a survey from The Los Angeles Times noted 93% of the Academy members were white and 76% were male, which reflected the kinds of films and actors typically nominated. Oscar voters have been known to be creatures of habit, but that could change with newly implemented rules that aim to double the number of women and minorities in the voter pool by 2020.

Already, the Academy invited 683 actors, filmmakers, and film professionals to become voters. This number includes Mahershala Ali (Marvel’s Luke Cage), Idris Elba, Oscar winners Brie Larson and Alicia Vikander, Gabrielle Union, and directors like Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman), James Wan (The Conjuring), Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok), and Lilly and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix). There’s still a great deal to be done to bring more diversity to the voter body, but new members bring new tastes — and the fact that 13th is both timely and timeless bodes well for its Oscar chances.

That the film is now readily available to all could pave the way for a groundbreaking Oscar nomination.


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