While some filmmakers aim to disappear behind the camera, Hubert Davis believes that a director's unique perspective, combined with a bit of bespoke flair, is what makes a good documentary great. "I have to have a personal connection to the material in some way," he explains, "something that I understand inherently and feel the need to say."
Davis' directorial debut, 2005's Hardwood, is about as personal as it gets: The short film is all about his relationship with his father, Harlem Globetrotters player Mel "Trick" Davis. For it, Davis received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Short Film.
His latest feature is Black Ice, which documents the untold history of Black hockey players and the racist roadblocks that they encounter on and off the ice. With the film, Davis strived to create something that is escapist and educational at the same time. "I want the audience to be into a story and that story's also informing you in some way," he says. "I don't think those things have to be mutually exclusive." (It's worth pointing out that Black Ice counts LeBron James and Drake as executive producers, and the film won the People's Choice Award for documentary when it premiered at TIFF.)
In both Hardwood and Black Ice, "I use sports as a bit of a Trojan horse, I call it," says the filmmaker. "It's my way into talking about a subject that might be a little bit more difficult to talk about." His next film, titled The Well, will be a new sort of challenge. "It has nothing to do with sports. It's more [about] systemic racism and environmental racism. It's a different thing for me."
Below, Davis shares with A.frame five of the films that have influenced his approach to documentary filmmaking.
Directed by: Errol Morris
The Thin Blue Line was a film I saw when I was at university, and it opened my mind to the idea that there was a director. In a documentary, often what happens is the director is irrelevant to the content of the documentary. As long as the content is strong, it doesn't matter if the filmmaking is strong. And what was so interesting about Errol Morris' work is he was merging both those things together — that you could be stylistic in the way you were approaching the material, and that actually helps to support telling the story. Those two things can work together. So, that was my first 'aha' moment.
Directed by: Ava DuVernay | Written by: Spencer Averick and Ava DuVernay
I really enjoyed 13th, and it inspired the making of this film. I was amazed at how she was able to break down a very big topic and then make it palatable, and make you understand how these things are all linked together, and show a through line of, 'Here's where this starts and then this is how it relates today.' Structurally, I thought, 'If we can do something that has that same ability...'
Directed by: Ezra Edelman
Another one that I thought was incredible is O.J.: Made in America. And why it's so strong is because it's talking about sport, but it's not really talking about sport. Inherently, in O.J.'s story, sport is the tool that allows him to become who he is, and then you have to tie those things to race and how he sees race and how we understand race. I think that's super interesting, when we get into stories that are combining those things. Because we don't involve race in discussions of athletes because sports is seen as escapism. If I'm talking about Michael Jordan, I'm not talking about race. I'm talking about Michael Jordan, because he's the greatest basketball player. But what people don't understand is those things are already intertwined — how we see him is a factor of him — so you actually can't separate them. I thought that was one of the more compelling works seen in combining those two things.
Directed by: Raoul Peck
2016 just happened to be an incredible year for Black documentaries. I really like that style of filmmaking. There's a poetic nature to that type of film, which I think is still effective. It's still political, it's still getting across what James Baldwin was talking about, but the approach to the filmmaking can be quite a specific feel of the filmmaker behind it. I like when those two things work together.
Written and Directed by: Alex Gibney
I think Alex Gibney is super talented, so usually I'll watch his films. There was one that he made about the opioid crisis, and I remember watching it for structure. For Black Ice, I wanted a talking head, but then I also wanted this vérité footage where we're in moments with people. We're following some of our characters and it's not just about the retelling of the story, but we're present with them. That was a film that I looked at to see some of that approach. It's okay to have some talking heads, and it's okay to have vérité. Those things can both work at the same time.