Roger Ross Williams, the director of “Life, Animated,” had more than one reason to be proud on Tuesday morning.
For one thing, his film about Owen Suskind, an autistic youth who learned to communicate by watching animated Disney films, was nominated for Best Documentary Feature. He learned about the nomination at the Sundance Film Festival, where the film premiered a year ago, and immediately cancelled his flight home so he could spend more time celebrating with the indie film community there.
But Williams is also one of five black directors in his category, alongside Ava DuVernay (“13th”), Raoul Peck (“I Am Not Your Negro”) and Ezra Edelman (“O.J.: Made in America”). And as a governor in the Academy’s Documentary Branch, he’s delighted that his branch has taken the lead in the charge for diversity.
“I think the doc branch of the Academy has always led the way,” he told TheWrap while walking down Main Street in Park City, stopping frequently to accept congratulations from friends and colleagues. “I feel like we are the most diverse, we have the most women, we’re the most progressive. Maybe that’s because of the work we do and the stories we tell, and it makes me proud to be a documentarian and proud to be a governor of the branch.
“We have made a real statement about diversity in our nominations,” added Williams, who became the first African American to win an Oscar for directing and producing a film when he won for his short “Music by Prudence” six years ago. “I know that we have a lot of work to do still, and a long way to go, even in our own branch, but we made great strides today.”
The first thing he did when he learned of the nomination for “Life, Animated,” Williams said, was to call Owen Suskind. “He was jumping up and down and screaming, he was so thrilled,” he said. “He wanted to do this film, he said, so that people wouldn’t look past him and not see him for who he is.
“This is a film for all the people who’ve been left behind, all the outsiders – and as a black gay man, I feel like an outsider, too. I’ve always felt that people look past me. I wanted to give a voice to people like Owen, and people like me.”
And that voice, he said, was celebrated not only in the nomination for “Life, Animated,” but for the other documentaries as well. “I don’t want to be an outsider,” he said. “I want to work from the inside, in a beautiful community that’s setting an example. I want our branch, and the Academy as a whole, to reflect America.”