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Documentary or Docudrama? Where’s the Line Between Reenactments & Fiction?

Documentary Mighty Times The Children's MarchMighty Times: The Children’s March: Documentary or docudrama? With the assistance of elaborate “reenactments,” Bobby Houston’s Best Documentary Short Oscar winner depicts the 1963 civil rights protests of thousands of children in Alabama.
  • Is the Best Documentary Short Academy Award winner Mighty Times: The Children’s March an actual documentary or a docudrama? Oscar competitor accuses filmmakers of “intentional deception.”

‘Faux documentary’ controversy following Mighty Times: The Children’s March Oscar win

“The people that vote on our films are our peers, and these people have seen reenactments for 20 years plus,” says Mighty Times: The Children’s March director Bobby Houston in the New York Times. Set during the United States’ Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, Houston’s effort became this year’s – now controversial – winner of the Best Documentary Short Academy Award.

Producer Steve Kalafer, whose Oren Jacoby-directed Sister Rose’s Passion was shortlisted in that same category, has complained to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that Houston and Mighty Times: The Children’s March producer Robert Hudson misled the Academy’s documentary board by not divulging the fact that reenactments had been used in their film about the 1963 civil rights protests of thousands of black children in Birmingham, Alabama.

Houston and Hudson’s previous non-fiction short, Mighty Times: The Legacy of Rosa Parks (2002), had dealt with this particular issue by opening with a disclaimer, while reenacted scenes were flagged via the on-screen use of film borders with sprocket holes.

‘Intentional deception’ accusation

As reported in the Times, in a March 18 letter to Academy Executive Director Bruce Davis, Kalafer labeled Houston and Hudson’s lack of disclosure “an intentional deception,” adding that “in comparing the two [Mighty Times] films, it is clear that they chose to realize the full potential of their ‘faux doc’ technique, raising it to a new level as a well-crafted, cunningly deceitful art form – but not documentary filmmaking.”

The Times adds that the Mighty Times: The Children’s March filmmakers used “vintage cameras and distressed film stock to shoot more than 700 extras, trained dogs and period automobiles and fire engines on various locations in Southern California.”

Actors play various roles in the short, including those of protesters, white supremacists, and police interrogators. And as mentioned above, thought partly filmed in California, the documentary is supposed to be set in Alabama.

Mighty Times: The Children’s March was produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center for HBO.

Civil Rights Movement movies

Big-screen narrative features set during the Civil Rights era include the following:

  • Michael Roemer’s independently made Nothing But a Man (1964), with Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln.
  • Norman Jewison’s Best Picture Oscar winner In the Heat of the Night (1967), with Sidney Poitier and Best Actor winner Rod Steiger.
  • Alan Parker’s Oscar-nominated Mississippi Burning (1988), with Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe.
  • John Waters’ musical comedy Hairspray (1988), with Ricki Lake and Divine.
  • Richard Pearce’s box office disappointment The Long Way Home (1990), with Sissy Spacek and Whoopi Goldberg.

In addition, producer Ely Landau’s Martin Luther King Jr.-themed 1970 documentary King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis was a Best Documentary Feature Oscar nominee.


“Documentary or Docudrama?” endnotes

Mighty Times: The Children’s March image: Southern Poverty Law Center | HBO.

“Documentary or Docudrama? Where’s the Line Between Reenactments & Fiction?” last updated in September 2021.

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