Documentary and the underdog just go together. Nonfiction filmmaking tends to champion the guy or gal who needs it the most — the falsely imprisoned, the poor, the abused, even our depleted ozone. And as a career choice that provides little promise of remuneration, the doc filmmaker knows what it’s like to be the one with the short straw — underpaid and under appreciated. It’s Underdog City out there.

And so it’s always fun to root for documentary at the Oscars, the little oddball category that rarely gets its props, when it get its brief moment in front of millions of people and a live audience filled with glitterati.

But, for some of us, our underdog sympathies might be going haywire this year because, believe it or not, we are in a position to root for a frontrunner. That’s right, even though the nominations haven’t been announced, and the votes are still being cast, Steve James’s Life Itself, a biopic about film critic Roger Ebert, is an easy pick to get nominated, with a strong shot to win the award. There are two clear films to beat: Life Itself and Citizenfour.

Like I said, all documentary filmmakers are underdogs of a sort, but what happens when James, the poster boy of doc underdogs, becomes the guy to beat?

I’m sure James would hate being slapped with that label, but when it comes to the Oscars, it’s unavoidable. James’s 1994 Hoop Dreams, about inner city basketball, considered to be one of the greatest documentaries of all time, didn’t even get nominated. And then his The Interrupters, a sharp, impassioned look at street violence that came out in 2011, should also have been nominated. But it wasn’t. And so he got that Oscar albatross strung around his neck.

So, now that he’s made a documentary that is catnip for Oscar voters (loveable, underdog character who makes good and whom the voters actually know and who died tragically; lots of awards; success at the box office), what are we to make of his seemingly inevitable slow roll to a well-deserved Oscar?

First things first: Don’t jinx it! I know, but I wanted to sort this all out, partly because I’ve been thinking about the additional irony that now James, with his feel-good film, is standing tall, while in his shadow there are numerous films that aren’t as shiny, and are more socially conscious, drilling at major issues such as economic disparity and freedom (Citizen Koch), or military injustice (The Kill Team), or gay equality (The Case Against 8). Is it really OK to root for this guy?

To answer these questions and settle my ambivalent heart, I spoke with James about his Oscar run. To start, he conceded, at my prompting, that there would be a “poetry,” as he put it, if he were to win for a film that portrays the critic who championed him. Ebert famously supported many underdog films and filmmakers and James was toward the top of that list. But, naturally, James is hoping that what distinguishes Life Itself is its quality and that it resonated with audiences.

During this Oscar run — all the front-runners have been holding special screenings for Oscar voters — he has been trying on a new hat. “Even though I’ve been on the shortlist before, I have never been involved in a situation when there were resources,” he says, in a nod to the efforts of his film’s distributor, Magnolia. “Not all of the films on the shortlist have that ability to do that.”

The notion that Life Itself is a “warm and fuzzy, entertaining film,” doesn’t sit well with him but he knows he needs to tread lightly because that could be what pushes him ahead.

“If your film gets nominated, you are getting a lot of love and attention for your film,” he says. “Everybody wants to win. Who wouldn’t?”

I’d bet anything the film gets nominated, but I had to ask James how’d he feel if it didn’t get a nod.

“I think I’ll be very disappointed. We have come a long way,” he says. “But I don’t think it’ll be some defining statement of the film’s value. I don’t think that’s true of any of the films shortlisted.”

Well said, but where does this leave us?

After decades of making documentaries, James has earned the right to be recognized with an Oscar. He’s already been robbed of one. This sort of thing happens all the time at the Oscars. They’re called Lifetime Achievement Awards. When people like Peter O’Toole or Cary Grant somehow miss winning an award, the wrong gets righted. That won’t be happening with James unless a film he made wins an award outright. Here’s his chance.

I know that’s just background. But so is, in a way, the fact that his biggest competition, Citizenfour and maybe Virunga, are more, shall we say, important films, because they’re about issues that could make this a better planet to live in. Looking at James’s career or a film’s social impact are both variations of looking beyond what’s on the screen.

Yes, ultimately, the case for Life Itself has to be made on the merits of the film. Is Life Itself a better documentary than those other two? I think it’s a toss up.

If the Oscar is to be rewarded to the film entirely based on cinematic storytelling, then, well, I think the case could easily be made for Life Itself.

Oscar voters are mulling this over until January. Here’s hoping they do the right thing.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen