The Road to Oscars: The Justice System on Trial

Within the Oscars race (and America) not everything is La La Land. Over the course of the 2016 awards season, which will officially end on February 26, one issue that came up over and over again — the American Justice system. From the fictional to some all too real documentaries, Hollywood was reflecting a national conversation that should have been headed towards overdue reforms. The dawn of Trump’s America puts future progress in question but the dialogue must persist — and this year’s Oscar flicks are a good jumping off point.


With eight Oscar nominations, Moonlight stands out in the way it portrays black boys and men involved in the criminal justice system. It bypasses the typical caricatures in order to tell the stories of human beings involved in the drug trade.

Mahershala Ali’s Juan is a loving father figure who is deeply conflicted, if not pained, about how he earns a living and it’s impact on people in his community. And main character Black isn’t just Black, a doo rag wearing drug dealer with a tricked out car. He is also Chiron and Little, younger versions of himself who had to navigate impossible problems at home, persistent bullying, and the realities of being gay and black in America.

The movie’s last act is an intimate conversation, which plays as a beautiful dance, between Black and his childhood friend Kevin. The substance is multi-layered, including a significant side issue. The men clearly believed that for boys in their neighborhood and school jail time was destiny. And why? Although flawed, none of these men are irredeemable menaces to society.


With the duo of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, the question is not whether there will be any awards nominations, but how many? There are four. This August Wilson classic centers on a working class family in the segregation era 1950s. Troy (played by Washington) previously served time in prison. For him, it meant missing most of his older son’s childhood. Their relationship has never recovered. The past absence is clearly a source of tension and pain. This historic portrayal speaks to the realities of some modern families impacted by incarceration.


“The Disney cartoon about structural racism and sexism” is a phrase that many people never thought they would utter. But here we are. Zootopia is an Academy Award nominee for Best Animated Feature. Towards the end of the film, one group of animals (“the predators”) is locked away in cages after being shot up with drugs that alter their behavior. A politician capitalizes on stereotypes and fears about “the predators” as a strategy to win an election. To the uninitiated, Zootopia offers easy to digest explanations for the drug war, mass incarceration, and the careers of people like Donald Trump.

Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water is the story of two brothers. Toby and Tanner are “outlaws”, a descriptor that fits the spirit and style of the movie. Essentially, the men are heroes seeking justice and revenge against a corporate bank that wronged their family. Underneath this primary narrative, there is a nod to Tanner’s troubled reentry into society.

Prison experiences leave him constantly looking over his shoulder. Post-release, he seems to place little value on his own life. His brother, who doesn’t have a criminal record, is more important and worthy of happy ending. The challenges of readjusting to society help to drive Tanner’s actions and the ultimate outcome of the story.


Ava DuVernay’s 13th exposes the cracks, or whopping craters, in the system. Race and racism are the story. Top experts in the field are interviewed. They help to trace the roots of modern policing and mass incarceration back to the original sin of slavery. Over policing, poor prison conditions, exploited labor, shady political players, and bipartisan wrongs are all covered. Nominated for Best Feature Documentary, 13th is Criminal Justice 101. It diagnoses the problems and preps a national conversation about solutions.

O.J. Simpson: Made In America

All Americans of a certain age remember O.J. Simpson’s murder trial. The verdict was a vivid cultural moment. In part, the O.J. Simpson: Made In America filmmakers sought to explore the reasons behind the polar opposite reactions of black and white Americans. As a result, they uncovered a history of abusive police practices and other harsh realities about the relationship between African Americans and the justice system.

The documentary has some shortcomings. For instance, racist police officer Mark Fuhram is painted as a sadly misunderstood victim while attorney Johnny Cochran is the evil villain. But such critiques likely reflect a certain truism. Not even six hours is long enough to thoroughly unpack the race issues in the O.J. case (or in America). But this film certainly adds to the conversation.

The Also Ran

Other relevant documentaries were submitted for consideration but were not nominated.

The militarization of America’s police departments is the focus of Do Not Resist. It’s a must see for anyone confused about why so many activists and citizens are concerned about current policing practices.

Solitary: Inside Red Onion State Prison illustrates the mental health impacts of spending 23 hours a day alone in a small cell. The documentary promotes discussion about how to define humane and inhumane treatment in America’s prisons.

The Seventh Fire is a slice of life documentary that follows Native American youth involved in the drug trade. In and out of jail, they experience struggles — limited opportunities on the reservation, deeply rooted personal failings, and the search for enough fortitude to turn their lives around.

Finally, Southwest of Salem is a jaw-dropping story about intersectional bias in the criminal justice system. For the subjects, being gay Hispanic women was a triple whammy. They were falsely accused and wrongly imprisoned for sexually abusing children. Fighting bigoted assumptions with limited social capital stole more than two decades of their lives.

(Originally Posted on on February 26, 2017)

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