The First Step Up the Mountain – Documentary Feature Submissions Announced

Time for the latest news for next year’s Academy Awards. Earlier this week, AMPAS announced the 159 films submitted for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

The list of submitted films can be found at the Academy’s official website here. Obviously, I’ve only seen a fair few of the movies so far, but there’s still plenty of time. These 159 films will be reduced to a shortlist of 15 on December 16, precisely 31 days from today. Looking at the list, I’m a tad bit disappointed that some spectacular documentaries were not submitted, notably What’s My Name: Muhammad AliAmazing Grace, and Leaving Neverland. I’m not sure why the Ali doc wasn’t submitted, as other HBO films were put forward. As for Amazing Grace, my guess is that since the footage was originally filmed for a movie in the 1970s, there might have been issues with eligibility.

Of course, the real surprise is Leaving Neverland. Actually, I shouldn’t use the word “surprise,” because its omission was wholly predictable. The HBO film documenting in excruciating detail the sexual assault allegations against the late Michael Jackson became a moment of the cultural zeitgeist in 2019. Lawsuits from Jackson’s family ensued, seeking over $100 million in damages, claiming that by making and releasing the film, HBO violated a non-disparagement clause in a contract with Michael to broadcast parts of his “Dangerous” tour in 1992. That was 27 years ago, and Jackson has been dead for 10 years, so HBO claims the deal is now defunct. However, the judge in the case refused to dismiss, so the case is technically still pending. For the time being, however, the suit constitutes, for all intents and purposes, a gag order on HBO to not release the film for further viewing or consideration until the case is resolved. In the meantime, the judge recommended HBO file a counter claim that the Jacksons’ suit is a SLAPP suit, essentially a frivolous lawsuit designed to stifle free speech. You can see a hilarious takedown of the practice by a different HBO entity here.

As for the rest of the list, a good number of them are available on Netflix and other streaming services. I’ll try to view as many as I can in the next few days/weeks, with appropriate “DownStream” or “Back Row Thoughts” columns posted to account for them. Hopefully, once the shortlist is announced, the Academy will repeat the Oscar Docs program they did last year, making the entire shortlist publicly available in the lead-up to nominations. If so, you can count on me for continuing coverage!

Edit: Shortly after this blog was first posted, a friend of mine who works in the documentary industry read it, and she informed me that Amazing Grace was actually submitted last year, and is therefore ineligible this year. Also, Leaving Neverland and What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali were two-parters, and after O.J.: Made in America won a few years ago, the Academy amended its rules so that multi-part TV documentaries were no longer eligible. Mysteries solved! Still, I’m guessing Leaving Neverland would have still been omitted due to the pending lawsuits if it were eligible, for what it’s worth.

Join the conversation in the comments below! Are you getting as pumped for Oscar season as I am? Are you a documentary buff? If so, which film(s) on this list are you rooting for? Let me know!

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