Written by: Tyler Schwartz
2018 has already seen the release of three critically acclaimed documentaries in RGB, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, and Three Identical Strangers. Beyond sharing similar levels of mass critical appeal, each film has also succeeded wildly beyond expectations at the Box Office, causing many industry journalists to signal this as watershed moment for documentary filmmaking.
Here are two reasons America is going through a documentary renaissance…
THE LAST DAYS OF MONOCULTURE*
The slow death of monoculture has been one of the most interesting societal phenomenons of the new millenium. The days of half the country watching the Mash or Seinfeld finales are long gone. The word of the hour now is “choice”, and in 2018 audiences have more options than ever before. However, despite culture critics espousing the death rattles of monoculture, once in a blue moon a subject pops up that still captures our collective imagination. FX’s American Crime Story about the OJ Simpson trial is a great example of high-level content and mass public interest colliding to create a cultural behemoth. It’s no coincidence then that all three of these documentaries tap into our national consciousness in similar ways.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor profiles the iconic Mr. Rogers, the Johnny Carson of children’s television. Everyone from ages 20-60 grew up with Mr. Rogers in their living room. Beyond being our neighbor, Mr. Rogers was also our uncle, father and grandfather, someone three entire generations of Americans have grown up with, passing on his wisdom to their own children. Put simply, you’d be hard pressed to find a celebrity personality with a higher approval rating among Americans than the venerable Fred Rogers (no disrespect to our future president Oprah… or Tom Hanks who will be playing Rogers in an upcoming movie).
Ruth Bader Ginsburg may not have the same nationwide appeal as Mr. Rogers (especially not in red states) but RGB, the documentary that profiles her life and career, is uniquely situated to tap into the current zeitgeist. In the age of Trumpified politics, Ginsburg stands out as the final bastion of liberalism. The Notorious RGB is the OG blue-blooded liberal and the OG modern feminist. In a world run by Agent Orange tweets and harrowing #MeToo accounts, the story and ongoing legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg has never been more timely (Kate McKinnon’s hilarious SNL impression also helps). Hollywood seems to agree, On The Basis of Sex starring Felicity Jones as a young and pugnacious RGB, will open later this year and has already garnered significant Oscar buzz.
Unlike the previous two films, Three Identical Strangers doesn’t chronicle the life and times of well known cultural figures, however that doesn’t make its story and message any less prescient. The film tells the tale of three identical triplets who are separated at birth and later reunited as young adults. To elaborate on the many twists and turns this incredible story takes would be to spoil a worthwhile night at the movies. All I’ll say is that what begins as an uplifting yarn about long lost brothers turns into a true crime witch hunt that forces the audience to ponder a basic premise that defines all humanity: What shapes who we are, Nature or Nurture? These identical strangers may not be household names but the virtues taken from their life story are primal emotions that every human can relate to.
COLLECTIVE TRUTH IN THE AGE OF FAKE NEWS
As Americans we’ve grown accustomed to talking heads on cable news shouting different opinions. However, in 2018, we’re also confronted with conflicting facts. The presidency of Donald Trump has ushered in the era of “fake news”and this unfortunate phenomenon is another reason why the impact of non-fiction films is felt so strongly right now.
An oft made mistake when watching documentaries is to accept everything appearing on-screen as fundamentally true. This simply isn’t the case. If it were, we wouldn’t need more than one documentary profiling the lives of Steve Jobs and Martin Luther King as opposed to the hundreds that have already been made. Documentaries may be non-fiction but that doesn’t mean they don’t have an agenda or that they’re telling the full story. In their most basic form, documentaries are propaganda, carefully shaping the narrative of “reality” to fit whatever the filmmakers want us to see. This isn’t inherently wrong, it’s just storytelling. However as our country becomes increasingly more divided over what “Red Facts” are true and what “Blue Facts” are false, American audiences continue gravitating towards non-fiction content that forces them to choose for themselves.
A great example of this are two recent Netflix documentary series, Making a Murderer and Wild Wild Country. Both of these shows do a great job of presenting the facts, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions. This makes sense when you think about it. In a society that has become increasingly filled with grey areas, it seems fitting that audiences would want to decide the difference between black and white for themselves. Non-Fiction films aren’t constrained into the ‘Hero’s Journey’ that most narrative films are forced into. They can live inside the grey area, exposing both black and white, and encouraging the audience to relate the story to their own life without hitting them over the head with a “message”.
Whether the recent documentary craze is a flash in the pan or dawning of a new era still remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain. As long as movies exist, documentaries will continue to shine a nonfiction light on the good and evils living inside this world. And there will always be a line of people at the movie theater waiting to see them, eager to decide for themselves.