IN THE WEEKS following the 2016 US election debacle, three documentaries that condemn institutionalized racism as the most egregious failure of American democracy found themselves prime contenders for best nonfiction film of the year. In form, Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, and Ava DuVernay’s 13th have little in common. A comparison between them, however, might provoke useful arguments, old and new, about the effectiveness of films meant to galvanize political action.
Impressive as DuVernay’s scathing indictment of the prison-industrial complex and Edelman’s meticulously researched, binge-worthy eight-hour analysis of racism and celebrity are, a combination of passionate subjectivity and intellectual clarity distinguishes Peck’s film, just as it does the writing of James Baldwin. I Am Not Your Negro isn’t a biopic. Rather, Peck uses Baldwin
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