Netflix and feature-length documentaries have a very interesting relationship indeed as highlighted by the scholar Sudeep Sharma in the chapter, “Netflix and the Documentary Boom.” Of course, the “boom” Sharma is referring to is the increased cultural space documentaries have come to occupy in regards to their availability on Netflix’s streaming service. In fact, there seems to be an endless rotation of documentaries on the public’s mind and cultural conversation; most notable films like “What Happened, Miss Simone,” “The Wolfpack,” and “Jim and Andy.” The revolving cultural presence of these films is also why Sharma calls Netflix a “newsstand” and not a library as it offers “material on a rotating basis that is continuously changing based on the available that is continuously changing based on the availability of material (that can “expire”) and the ostensible desires of consumers (Sharma, pg. 144).” If Netflix were a really a library, Sharma believes that users would be able to choose from a vast collection of documentaries that are provided for scholarly reasons but this isn’t so with the streaming service. Instead, “Netflix’s choices are driven by commercial needs (Sharma, pg. 144).” I find Sharma’s argument compelling, as it matches up with my perceptions of how hot-button documentaries seem to rocket into the public sphere before they are replaced with something more timely. Sharma believes that these titles have an “immediacy and broad similarity in terms of subject matter (Sharma, pg., 145).” My initial fear regarding Netflix’s newsstand model is that potentially subversive documentaries are passed over ones that conform to commercial standards and thus diminish cultural understanding of important political issues. I also worry that these films become the stereotypical water cooler conversation pieces and don’t push individuals in communities to advocate for change. Yet, I want to be careful in assuming that just because a documentary is commercial and genre conforming that it cannot be impactful or educating to the viewer.
I believe this is certainly the case with the documentary the 13th with its deeply unsettling argument that slavery has never truly ended for African Americans in this country. Using archival footage, sit down interviews and b-roll footage the 13th takes a critical eye to the political events that followed the ratification of the 13th amendment in 1865 that essentially created a loophole for the continuation of slavery through the prison system. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay uses documentary genre conventions to make sure the viewer keeps up with the conversation as the heaviness of the subject matter of the film almost mandates a simpler narrative form. Yet where most documentaries use archival footage, and 13th certainly does as well, it also incorporates news footage in order to show the continuation of the issue of hand as the film declares that the imprisonment of Black bodies is simply treated as “business as usual.” While 13th is certainly digestible in regards to its film format subject matter is anything but and leaves the viewer deeply disturbed with only a few tinges of hope for the future.
While 13th shoots for emotional poignancy and political reform in its one hour and forty minute runtime, Evil Genius tries to make sense out of one of the most bizarre crime stories in four, one-hour episodes. It all begins with the introduction of Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, a woman who was always considered different growing up but changed when mental illness began to take control of her life. This is set up through narration and old photographs before the film moves on to show news footage of Brian Wells robbing PNC Bank armed with a cane-gun and a bomb strapped around his neck. The viewers also watched the standoff between police and Wells before the bomb detonated, killing the pizza deliveryman on the scene. It’s a chilling start to the mini-series and begs questions to the viewer that they most certainly want to be answered. It’s an excellent tactic to bring the viewer into the whodunit aspect of the show but also encourages the viewer to binge the next three hours worth of material. It also brings up one of my main issues with the series is that the documentary only fleshes out information that has already been discussed at length in the media. The only true revelation lies at the end of the documentary when one of Wells’ friends explains her involvement in the case and that he was innocent in all of it. It’s also why I struggled to find the show “meaningful” than any other piece of scripted or fictional programming, as the whole show became too bloated for the topic at hand. Evil Genius uses the same genre standards as any other documentary but takes twice amount of the time for material that seems like it was stretched too thin.