The True Stories Behind This Year's Non-Fiction Nominees

Truth is stranger than fiction, and that's why I’m such a sucker for non-fiction movies. Whether they're based on a New York Times article, a memoir, or something random from the news, I'm in. With billions of us on the planet, all with our own unique story, you could probably fill movie theaters with our non-fiction 'til the end of time. You can sense our addiction to documentaries has grown over the last decade, as their truth milkshakes have consistently brought viewers to their yards.

This year's award nominations are filled with non-fiction treats that highlight our love for stories grounded in truth. Non-fiction movies do come under a lot of pressure to live up to their real narratives and featured personalities, but when they do, they blow fiction out of the water in my opinion (we all remember Erin Brockovich).

Let's take a look at the non-fiction stories behind this year's nominations, scrutinize how much fiction is snuck in, and just how successful they are at bringing the truth to our screens.


The Mauritanian

This film is based on ‘Guantánamo Diary,’ a memoir written by Mohamedou Ould Slahi. This book became a New York Times Bestseller, and we all know that when that happens a screen adaptation is on the horizon. This movie manages to reflect the writer's harrowing examination of his 14 years in Guantanamo, after which he was finally released with no charges.  The memoir is full of Slahi's open-eyed narration, while the movie maybe neglects that a little. It's possible they had to make room for the portrayal of many intense and fascinating characters that were part of those 14 years. In the end, this movie was a real surprise for me. I found it thrilling, and it’s very evident that Tahar Rahim had done his homework to help bring the true Mohamedou Ould Slahi to life on screen. Rahim had many open dialogues with Slahi over Skype in preparation of bringing this incredibly important story to life. 


Hillbilly Elegy 

This one is based on J.D. Vance's memoir of the same name. Vance grew up in white working-class America, his childhood was unstable and violent, and it had the added strain of a chain-smoking grandma (Glenn Close) and alcoholic mother (Amy Adams). He eventually ‘escapes’ and makes his way to Yale Law School. This movie is driven with full force by Adams and Close. It’s faced some criticism from reviewers, myself included, for its lackluster portrayal of Vance and its neglect of the book's politics.

I have to say I preferred the book, as Vance's voice as narrator was louder and clearer. That being said, I don’t always agree with Vance's un-nuanced arguments on white privilege, claiming it's a label from the left that neglects the very real narrative of white working-class America. I hear what he’s saying, but I just thought it was a failure to recognize that even amidst his tough background he still possessed privilege. 


The Trial of the Chicago 7

This movie provides an energetic portrayal of the circus-like trial that saw a group of seven protest leaders charged with conspiring to incite a riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. I had learned the ins and outs of this trial while studying it in my teens, and this movie still had me on the edge of my seat.

If you heard soundbites from The Trial of the Chicago 7, you might think its script creates a bit too much fiction out of the fact. However, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who plays Bobby Seale, talks explicitly about how much the script matches the court transcripts from the five month trial that this movie is based on.

This story is an example of human tenacity that translates on the screen superbly and draws in the audience from the start. It’s highly edited and a little too pulpy, which can diminish its reflection of reality. Still, it's a non-fiction hit and a big hitter within the 2021 awards.



I’ve always loved a nomadic movie based on non-fiction—e.g., Into the Wild, Leave No Trace, Wild, and The Motorcycle Diaries, to name just a few. Now I’m adding Nomadland to that list.  This movie magnifies the beauty and compromise that exists within a transient lifestyle, while examining what drives someone to lead such a life. The movie is based on the book ‘Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,’ and in my opinion it does it sufficient justice. Of course, Nomadland blends some fiction with its non-fiction, and its director, Chloe Zhao, is very transparent about that.

I think non-fiction movies succeed when they surprise you with a story you haven’t seen before, and Nomadland does just that. However, when I read the book I discovered it was a marvelous, journalistic map of the world seen through the lens of an older nomadic generation let down by economics. After reading it, I wanted more of that part of the book to be included in the film, but I understand the need to distill the story down to fewer voices and main characters to follow. 


Judas and The Black Messiah

What's evident in this film is the in-depth research that went on behind the scenes by writer and director Shaka King. That’s echoed in the cast too, with both Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya knowing their characters in and out. It's so evident when you watch them both on-screen and in press interviews.

I was entranced by this movie that had so many layers I didn’t know what to do with them all. Some have said this movie fills in the blanks and sometimes takes some liberties with the truth, and this may be true in some aspects of Fred Hampton’s story. However, this movie gives an incredibly honest look into William O’Neil’s infiltration into the Black Panther Party as an FBI informant, played by the wonderful Lakeith Stanfield. No matter how you look at it, you're in for an excellent education with this film.



Biographic movies are notorious for incorporating fiction and becoming a little cheesy (aka the murdering of my favorite memoir, ‘Just Kids,’ by Patti Smith). We will wait to see Jennifer Hudson’s portrayal of Aretha Franklin in R.E.S.P.E.C.T,  but rumor is it stays faithful to the irreplaceable singer. 

Mank is based on the journey of the film Citizen Kane and focuses specifically on Herman J. Mankiewicz who wrote the screenplay alongside Welles. Although a large portion of the movie is fictionalized, the main truth it wants and achieves to expose is who actually wrote Citizen Kane. The film is fighting in the corner of Herman J. Mankiewicz, who was possibly cheated by Orson Welles, who claimed he wrote the film. Mank has good intentions. It sticks to as much of the truth as possible, it stays faithful to its time, it has a sense of place, and the actors succeed in bringing authenticity to their fascinating roles. 


This is just 2020/21 non-fiction nominations, but I could probably write a whole book on all the non-fiction movies I love that have won in the past or were never even nominated to begin with. I could also write about non-fiction that got into the wrong hands... but that's for another day.

We want to hear about your favorite non-fiction movies. Have you read the book or article behind the story and dug deeper into the real-life characters behind the stories? What non-fiction movies do you think got made by the wrong person, or present a narrow perspective of an expansive story?

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