It took a documentary for Ava DuVernay to finally get an Oscar nomination.
The director more than earned one for her film Selma, released in 2014. But thanks to a remarkably white slate of nominees that led to the viral hashtag campaign #OscarsSoWhite, she didn't get cited for best director. (Selma did get nominated for best picture, but she wasn't one of the four producers named as nominees.)
But DuVernay made her triumphant return this year as the filmmaker behind The 13th, the Netflix documentary about racism in the criminal justice system in the United States. She, alongside filmmakers like Ezra Edelman from O.J.: Made in America, Raoul Peck from I Am Not Your Negro and Roger Ross Williams from Life, Animated, make up the single most nonwhite category at the Oscars. This makes the 2017 documentary feature race a strong example of where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should go from here.
Compared to the #OscarsSoWhite-plagued years, the 2017 documentary feature category looks wildly different. The 13th, I Am Not Your Negro and O.J.: Made in America are all not just by black directors, but about black people and their experiences. (Williams, a previous Oscar winner, follows the white Suskind family in Life, Animated.)
Even in the ordinarily inclusive documentary feature category, which has championed movies like What Happened, Miss Simone? Virunga, 20 Feet From Stardom and Searching for Sugar Man in recent years, this is a remarkable set of nominations. Even the fifth, Italian director Gianfranco Rosi's Fire at Sea, tells the important story of migrant refugees in Europe.
It's a category that reflects the incremental progress made by the academy this year. Movies like these, and like Fences and Moonlight in the best picture race, are how the industry changes. Inclusion in front of the camera is important, as is representation behind it. Only with both does the systemic racism in Hollywood — and even the independent film scene — start to change.
Like with the rest of the Oscars, it's entirely possible that the documentary field will reflect a much less inclusive slate in the future. Progress is a process that includes ebbs and flows. But for the moment, we can look at this category as an example moving forward. This is the kind of slate that makes the Oscars worth the attention: championing great, smaller films that deserve a huge platform.
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