The Ever-Changing Rules of the Academy

Apparently unable to keep a homeostasis for very long, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has yet again changed its rules of eligibility, effective for the 90th Academy Awards next February.

Numerous categories were affected as the changes were announced on Friday, yet most notably changed was the Best Documentary Feature category. Despite O.J.: Made in America winning Best Documentary in February as a film and also serving as a TV documentary mini-series, the Academy has now ruled that documentary series are now longer eligible for the award. Although O.J. was not mentioned in the press release announcing the rule change, this alteration feels, to me, like a direct response to a film which met Academy qualifications last year by premiering in theaters before it aired on television. This rule seems to make it unnecessarily difficult for worthy films to be nominated for Oscars, and the Academy seems to be limiting their own goal of finding the year’s best films (O.J. topped my best-of film list for 2016, as well as numerous critics). Traditional, theatrically released docs are not the only way to make an exceptional film, although the Academy seems to be preserving some sense of superiority by limited the category in such a way. ESPN’s latest documentary We the Fans, which premieres on April 11th as the first part of an eight-part series is now no longer eligible for the Academy Awards, yet may be eligible for the Primetime Emmy Awards comes September.

Of course the Academy is not shy about changing its rules in one way, sometimes directly after changing them in another way. The best example of this in my lifetime is the recent rule changes for the Best Picture category. In 2009, before the 82nd Awards, the Best Picture category was expanded from five nominated films to ten, although it only stayed that way for two years. A response to populous films like The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008) not being nominated, many now think the rule change was a failure mainly due to films such as The Blind Side (Hancock, 2009) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Daldry, 2010) receiving nominations. The category now hovers between five and ten, and very few films with mass appeal, like Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Abrams, 2015) make the cut despite original intentions from the Academy.

I’m on the fence about the rules myself. I thoroughly believe the Oscars should do their best to honor the best films possible, yet their near-constant dismissal of films that received critical and commercial acclaim is baffling to me. Yes, some films that meet both qualifications have received nominations–Toy Story 3 (Unkrich, 2010), Inception (Nolan, 2010), Django Unchained (Tarantino, 2012), and others. Still, the middle ground is irritating. There are far more than ten films released every year that deserve Best Picture nominations, and I see no harm in giving the Academy a minimum/maximum of ten to nominate. I do see the dilemma when films like The Blind Side and Extremely Loud get nominated, though. For the record I enjoy those films, yet calling them Best Picture-worthy feels odd to me. Perhaps the Academy is better being exclusive, live it was for decades upon decades, and only nominated five, often incredibly-worthy, films.

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Review: “O. J.: Made in America”

Very likely my favorite film of 2016, O. J.: Made in America is the rare kind of film that manages to add a little of everything to the mix. What is this film, an Academy Award nominee for Best Picture, really about? Race? Class? Gender and masculinity? The murder of a young woman and a young man? The fall from grace of an American icon? If you ask anyone who has sat through the almost eight-hour long epic (which took me a week to complete), and they will rightly tell you that the film delicately balances all those things, and more.

One of the greatest things about this film is how well director Ezra Edelman treats his audience by assuming that they know nothing about O. J. Simpson. You’d be hard pressed to find someone in 2017 who doesn’t know at least something about O. J. Simpson–I was only four months old at the time of his acquittal for murder, yet I feel as though I know the case better than some people who can remember it. Still, Edelman treats the film as though he is revealing the man of O. J. Simpson for the first time, a wondrous achievement. Beginning with Simpson as a young man, the film chronicles his early successes playing high school, college, and professional football, and his quick ascension to celebrity status, all with the backdrop of race, which Simpson was also an expert in. Edelman shows that, because of his maneuvering between the white and black races, Simpson was able to take hold of the white American psyche in a way that few, if any, African-American figures had done before, all the while still being adored by the African-American community as well. By adding in the complex topic of race early on in the film, the audience is given a clear indication that this will come into play later in the documentary, which it does in full force, especially during the parts of the film which depict the murder trial of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

The film is far too long, and far too far-reaching, for me to accurately sum it up in a single blog post, let alone a full-length essay, yet the whole film really comes down to the man it depicts–Orenthal James Simpson. A deeply enigmatic, deeply flawed, and deeply troubled icon of American pop culture, Made in America makes a valid attempt to understand the man himself, and it very richly succeeds. Simpson is a man dominated by the desire–the need, the addiction–to be liked, and to be famous. This is eerily present in the documentary which makes great usage of Simpson’s past interviews and archive footage. A charming guy with a great smile, a strong voice, and a passionate way about him, Simpson nevertheless emerges as a tragic individual. When someone is so dominated by the impulse to be loved by everyone, they will inevitably step on a few toes to get to the top of that proverbial mountain. Currently imprisoned since 2008 for a Las Vegas armed robbery, Simpson is carefully painted in both negative and positive lights for the film. While Edelman seems to make the conclusion that, yes, despite what the twelve jurors decided in 1995, Simpson is a murderer, there is a tragic way about how Simpson is presented in the documentary’s present tense. Simpson flew too close to the sun and got burned–if you ask Marcia Clark and Fred Goldman, as Edelman did, they’d say that karma came back and bit O. J. Simpson.

As a culture we are obsessed with fame and this film makes that abundantly clear. Allegedly, on the night of Simpson’s armed robbery in a Vegas casino, his god-daughter Kim Kardashian announced her new television series Keeping Up with the Kardashians, which, again allegedly, Simpson said would last no longer than two weeks. When the Kardashian patriarch, Robert, was such an influential figure in Simpson’s murder trial, did you really not expect one of his daughters to appear in a documentary about Simpson? We as Americans are so pre-occupied with fame that we, at times, forget to live our own lives, and we forget that fame is a tangible thing. I myself am a victim, as I’ve spent the vast majority of the past week researching, listening to, and watching any thing I could about a crime that happened before I was even born, all because a celebrity was at the center of it. But hey, whenever something as groundbreaking and astonishing as O. J.: Made in America is on, can you blame me?

For more information about, and another review extolling, O. J.: Made in America, read this New York Times piece by resident critic A. O. Scott.