Which Movies Would Be Better As Documentaries?

By  · Published on May 20th, 2014

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One major criticism against Disney’s Million Dollar Arm is that it should have focused on the two Indian characters, Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh (portrayed by Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal), rather than white sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm). After all, the real story there is that two young foreigners won a reality show and in turn experienced the American Dream by coming to the U.S. and signing to a major league baseball organization. Focusing on Bernstein has the stink of the “White Man’s Burden” trope, as if he’s a hero for discovering and then saving them from a life of poverty more than they’re heroes on their own for being talented – and, yes, lucky to a degree, but mostly for their own athletic achievement.

If only there was a documentary version. As I looked into the making of Million Dollar Arm it made me even more disappointed that one didn’t exist. The project began with sports television producers Neil and Michael Mandt filming Patel and Singh during their 2008 tryouts after they arrived in America. The result of that shoot was a nine-minute short/trailer they sold to the studio. I don’t know that we’ll ever see that footage (maybe on the DVD?), but it’d be great to eventually see it combined with material from the Indian reality show (also called Million Dollar Arm) and news reports and segments like the one from ESPN’s Outside the Lines program below plus proper interviews with the real main characters of this story, which I’m certain would be better told in documentary form.

Another movie that would’ve been better as a documentary is Black Like Me, which happens to turn 50 years old today. The fictionalized drama of a white man going undercover as a black man in the American South in the late 1950s is based on a true story. Journalist John Howard Griffin went through a process to darken his skin in order to pass as an African American and experience the prejudice and discrimination of a black person firsthand. He wrote the book “Black Like Me” about his journey through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, which was pretty groundbreaking for the time, partly because even though blacks had been writing their own accounts of racism in those states, such works were dismissed by whites for being exaggerations of paranoia.

The movie version was fictionalized enough to have the main character’s name changed, and that dilutes a lot of the power of the story. But it’s a well-made drama, and in the lead role James Whitmore does a fine job in spite of his appearance seeming more like unconvincing blackface, especially compared to how Griffin looked. For its purpose, though, it can easily be aligned with less-respected fictional takes on the concept, particularly the 1980s social comedies Soul Man and, dealing with gender rather than race, Just One of the Guys. Meanwhile, other better satires, like the Melvin Van Peebles movie Watermelon Man (which stars black actor Godfrey Chesire, who goes whiteface for the scenes pre-transformation) and Eddie Murphy’s classic “White Like Me” sketch on Saturday Night Live, are more effective at proving points through absurdity rather than faked realism.

If only there was a documentary version of Black Like Me. When Griffin performed his experiment, that was on the cusp of when the Direct Cinema movement was introducing new methods for mobile, on-location filming of real events. By the time the movie was made, Robert Drew had just released Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, a firsthand record of the battle between President John F. Kennedy and Alabama Governor George Wallace over the racial integration of the University of Alabama. And a few years earlier than that, Drew’s The Children Were Watching (shot by Richard Leacock) chronicled the insides and outs of another integration crisis, that of a New Orleans elementary school. The only good reason Black Like Me couldn’t have also been done as a doc is perhaps that Griffin had become famous enough that going undercover couldn’t happen again, especially with cameras following him around.

Then there’s also the question of whether or not the presence of cameras would have influenced how people acted around Griffin. And that’s not just a matter of anyone who’d act less racist than normal to this supposed African American. Many individuals would have been even worse, performing for the documentary crew and showing off their intolerance – because that was actually how a lot of people wanted to be seen. It was that socially accepted in certain areas. You can see it in The Children Were Watching, and shockingly it’s also quite visible in the recent documentary Neshoba: The Price of Freedom, about the re-opened case against and trial of Edgar Ray Killen, the former Ku Klux Klan member responsible for the murders of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi back in 1964 (a story also dramatized for the earlier movie Mississippi Burning).

50 years ago, it wasn’t a common trend for documentaries to follow experiments like Griffin’s. Now we see docs all the time where filmmakers and/or subjects alter their lives to illustrate points, whether it’s more personal like Morgan Spurlock eating only fast food or Doug Benson smoking pot everyday or Colin Beavan and his family attempting to leave no carbon footprint (in Super Size Me, Super High Me and No Impact Man, respectively) or it’s an undercover act like Sacha Baron Cohen exposing xenophobia and racism in Borat and homophobia in Bruno or Vikram Gandhi revealing and challenging people’s idea of spirituality in Kumare. It’s also a staple of news shows to do a segment on the discrimination of overweight people during which a thin reporter wears a fat suit to experience the treatment for herself.

There was also a short-lived reality series on FX in 2006 that took inspiration from Griffin’s experiment for a modern look at race relations. Called Black.White, the show was produced by Ice Cube (he also provided the theme song, “Race Card”) and documentary filmmaker R.J. Cutler (The September Issue) and followed two families (cast with actors), one black and one white, that swap races. It also won an Emmy for makeup. But it’s not real enough, nor does it have any substantial historical or social weight (does anyone even remember it?), and on top of that it’s just plain ridiculous. Or maybe it’s just the stigma of reality television? No, I think had Cutler made a feature doc it could have been more serious. Maybe not as an equivalent of Black Like Me, due to this being a different era, but maybe as a sort of a nonfiction version of the Paul Haggis movie Crash.

That 2004 Oscar winner was the first movie to come to one friend’s mind when I asked around for other movies that would’ve been better as documentaries. Of course, there are some to suggest that don’t involve race relations. But the movies that come up tend to be of a social nature, like The Breakfast Club (I’d like to see the Jean Rouch version of that). Or guidebook adaptations like What to Expect When You’re Expecting. It’s harder to come up with movies based on true stories that might have worked like Million Dollar Arm could, because so much of real life, even important real life, happens unexpectedly without thinking of documentation.

That’s changing, of course. Many documentaries today are able to present actual filmed record of their most important events due to everyone filming everything, with the utmost convenience (see recent Tribeca Film Festival doc winner Point and Shoot when it comes out for a great example). And even those using archival footage for stories taking place since the advent of personal home movie cameras are easily pieced together for fluid storytelling increasingly referred to as “historical verite.” Soon there will be no excuse for a true story not to be presented as a documentary, at least in addition to a dramatic version if not instead of.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.