Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: Coincidence or Codes in Nature Docs?

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First, there was March of the Penguins, that outrageously successful 2005 nature doc about the life and times of penguins. Because the film’s only stars are penguins, it occurred to me that only human being who shares the, er, bill with them is the film’s narrator, Morgan Freeman. And then that was that.

And then along came Arctic Tale, that outrageously hyped, yet entirely unsuccessful 2007 nature doc about a walrus and a polar bear. The big cuties shared the credits with the film’s narrator, Queen Latifah. OK.

Polar cubs from Disney's "Earth"And now, this weekend, we have Earth, the latest major nature doc to hit theaters. This one is part of Disney’s first new motion picture label, Disney Nature, and it’s being released with full fanfare and an expensive ad campaign. The film stars polar bear, elephant and whale families, and those critters receive top billing along with narrator James Earl Jones

All of this led me to ask: Isn’t it interesting that three of the most Hollywood-y nature docs of the past five years are all narrated by African Americans? Of course, Freeman, Latifah and Jones are gifted and experienced narrators who have powerful and articulate voices that create the appropriate resonance for such films. They’re all right for the job. But is there something else going on?

Looking for answers, I called up Southern Methodist University film professor Sean Griffin, who cowrote the book, America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality at the Movies, and asked him that very question. And while he at first asserted that these three actors are obviously more than qualified for the gig, he added, “I have no physical proof of this, but these documentaries often are trying to tie themselves to the ecology movement and so perhaps they are also wearing their liberal credentials, saying, ‘see, we have a person of color narrator.’”

Griffin and I were talking very loosely, “shooting the s—,” as he put it, and ultimately we both agreed that you would have to do some deep reading into a situation to draw this conclusion. But, he added, choosing a narrator is a “conscious, creative choice,” as he drew on his analysis from a class he’s currently teaching on gay and lesbian cinema. “Many of the old Disney nature documentaries would try to anthropomorphize the animals,” Griffin says. “And they would read middle class, patriarchal and heterosexual values into nature.”

I’ve heard that argument before. It’s an interesting one. Does it hold water? Or is it too film theory-y? Do you look at the subtext in a nature doc?

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki