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Minding the Gap (Bing Liu, 2018): Exemplifying the Intersectional Approach in Contemporary Documentary Filmmaking 


Stephanie Oliver

Intersectionality is an integral component of many contemporary documentaries. The Hulu Original Minding the Gap (Bing Liu, 2018) is one example of a contemporary documentary film that takes an intersectional approach in its depiction of its subjects, which is also one sign that the early twenty-first century represents a golden age of documentary filmmaking. Other documentary films that take an intersectional approach when exploring the roots of cultural and socioeconomic inequality and oppression in contemporary America include 13th (Ava DuVernay, 2017), Strong Island (Yance Ford, 2017), Hale County This Morning, This Evening (RaMell Ross, 2018), Abacus: Too Small to Jail (Steve James, 2019), Time (Garrett Bradley, 2020), and Crip Camp (James LeBrecht and Nicole Newhnham, 2020).[1]  Like these films, Minding the Gap uses an intersectional lens to explore the reasons its various subject are oppressed, yet Bing Liu’s film is different from the others because it has an equal focus on three subjects with different racial and class backgrounds. Put simply, this article argues that Minding the Gap exemplifies contemporary intersectional documentary filmmaking because it looks at the individual and the collective without imposing the filmmaker’s voice/perspective or a universalizing viewpoint that ignores the various subjects’ individual struggles in favor of a totalizing whole, and it does this in a more diverse way than its contemporaries.[2] 

On the surface, the film is about growing up, skateboarding, and interracial friendship. But at its core, Minding the Gap is about violence in the home, masculinity, racism, and economic dislocation (among other things). From the opening scene on, Minding the Gap oscillates between a multitude of interconnected yet distinctly different perspectives. The individual experiences of filmmaker Bing Liu, Zack Mulligan, and Keire Johnson are at the forefront of the narrative. Nina (the mother of Zack’s son, Elliot), Roberta (Keire’s mother), Kent (Liu’s half brother), and Mengyue (Liu’s mother) are the film’s secondary set of subjects who are present at different points throughout the narrative. In this way, Minding the Gap offers a layered account of everyday life in the working-class suburbs of Rockford, Illinois, which considers the individual experiences of the film’s subjects and the shared and collective experience of the community at large. Through this complex weaving of the subjects’ perspectives and experiences as both shared yet distinctly unique, the film presents an intersectional look at the multiple causes of inequality that plague many Americans today and the film’s subjects in particular. Minding the Gap illustrates that some films that belong to the golden age of documentaries are distinctly intersectional in their representation of inequality and oppression.

Drawing on the work of the Combahee River Collective in the 1970s, a Black feminist lesbian socialist collective, legal scholar and critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw first coined the term “intersectionality” in her 1989 paper “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex” (Ochefu 2021). Crenshaw defines intersectionality as “the way in which multiple forms of inequality or oppression (such as racism, sexism, classism, ableism, heterosexism and more) can compound and cerate different modes of discrimination or disadvantage” (Ochefu 2021). To understand the social life and experiences of a person, one needs to look at the ways that all aspects of one’s identity overlap and intersect with each other and inform one another. For example, class, race, gender, and sexual orientation (among other components of one’s identity) all shape the kinds of sexism that women face; in other words, not all women face the same kinds of sexism. Intersectionality is important to consider when assessing the causes of oppression in a given society because “all forms of inequality are mutually reinforcing and must therefore be analyzed and addressed simultaneously to prevent one form of inequality from reinforcing another” (Center for Intersectional Justice, n.d.). 

In the last thirty years, intersectionality has been adopted by scholars in different fields for many purposes. In Intersectionality: An Intellectual History, Ange-Marie Hancock argues that in the twenty-first century, “intersectionality is both an analytical framework and a complex set of social practices” (2016, 6). As Hancock explains, the concept of intersectionality as it is understood today was introduced by Crenshaw in two essays (published in 1989 and 1991) and Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Feminist Thought (1990). She shows how wide-ranging the definition of intersectionality has become and argues for an understanding of the term’s historical development, with attention to the specific meanings the term has taken on as both an analytical framework in various academic disciplines and as an approach to social justice. Hancock argues that knowing the specific historical trajectory of intersectionality is crucial to understanding how it can be used as a potentially radical framework in reforming America’s “structures of government and public policies, as well as to make other changes” (2016, 16). 

Several contemporary documentaries examine causes of oppression through an intersectional lens. However, in contrast to fiction film scholars, documentary film researchers have only recently begun to explicitly address ways that intersectionality depicted in a film can impact one’s reading of a film’s political and cultural messages and themes. One study that analyzes intersectionality in a documentary film is Carrie N. Baker’s “An Intersectional Analysis of Sex Trafficking Films” (2014). Baker analyzes fictional media texts that portray sex trafficking in more limited ways including the Hollywood film Taken (Pierre Morel, 2008) and the independent drama Holly (Guy Moshe, 2006). Baker also analyzes nonfiction media texts that portray sex trafficking in more nuanced and intersectional ways including the documentaries Trading Women (David A. Feingold, 2003) and Very Young Girls (David Schisgall and Nina Alvarez, 2007). After analyzing the films, Baker calls for more films to take an intersectional approach when portraying the multifaceted causes of sex trafficking in media texts. Baker’s discussion is not about intersectionality in documentaries per se, but her work shows that scholars are considering nonfiction films in those terms.

Context for Minding the Gap: The Golden Age of Documentary Films

There are many periods in documentary film history that can be considered the golden age for the ways that filmmakers innovated the style and content of films, including the 1960s when cinema vérité filmmakers in France and direct cinema filmmakers in America and Canada experimented with observational filmmaking in an attempt to remain as objective and “truthful” as possible when filming. The contemporary era represents another golden age of documentary filmmaking. In a 2011 interview in The Guardian, acclaimed documentary filmmaker Steve James, known for directing the critically acclaimed and groundbreaking ethnographic documentary Hoop Dreams (1994), proposes that “we are living in a golden age for documentary film-making” (Dowell 2011).  In the interview, James notes that audiences now consider documentaries to be “entertaining,” rather just “good for you” or purely educational and informative (Dowell 2011).[3] He also asserts that many innovative and ambitious filmmakers have chosen to make documentaries instead of narrative films, which has led to more “quality” films that experiment with what documentaries can do when telling stories that “address very urgent concerns of the modern world” (Dowell 2011). The interview closes with James’s impassioned call for film documentarians to continue pushing the boundaries to retain relevancy in a landscape in which narrative films and reality TV shows are increasingly shot in “documentary style,” that is, with a sense of “urgency” and “gritty” realism (Dowell 2011). 

James’s call for filmmakers to push boundaries has been answered. In a 2019 article for CBS News, Gabriel Falcon recounts the reasons several contemporary documentary film professionals support the idea that audiences are in “The Golden Age of Documentary Filmmaking,” the title of the article (2019).[4]  Falcon’s reasons for seeing the early twenty-first century as the golden era of documentary filmmaking are similar to James’s, but they reference more recent developments to explain documentaries’ success at the box office and with critics and everyday viewers. Falcon quotes Impact Pictures cofounder/director/producer Dan Coogan, who argues that “storytelling in nonfiction film” has never been as great as it is today (2019).[5]  Falcon expands on Coogan’s claim by noting that documentaries are “earning more, costing more, and being shown more in mainstream theaters,” as opposed to film festivals or art-house theaters (2019). To support these claims, Falcon points out that there are more distribution opportunities available for documentarians today due to online streaming services (such as Netflix, HBO, Showtime, National Geographic, Hulu, Amazon, and Apple), which have also led to more viewers watching documentaries than ever before; algorithms of streaming services such as Netflix now suggest documentaries to viewers without being asked to look for them (2019). Falcon quotes documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger, who says that “documentaries today are ‘more creative’ because they are ‘adopting techniques of scripted films’” (2019). Falcon also quotes DOC NYU film festival organizer Thom Powers, who argues that documentaries have had momentous real-world impacts in recent times; Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 film Super Size Me changed the way fast food is sold and thought about, and documentaries have given a voice to victims of injustice or abuse, including #MeToo victims (2019). Falcon concludes by quoting Coogan, who argues that documentarians today are making films that “tell extraordinary stories at a high level” and “engage with the world in this moment, with real people, and real lives, and real consequences” (2019). Documentary films have arguably always told stories about real peoples’ lives and have had consequences offscreen, but streaming services have caused more documentaries to reach more viewers. 

Other documentary film professionals also argue that the golden era of documentary filmmaking has been facilitated by the rise of streaming services and innovation in technology. In Screening Reality: How Documentary Filmmakers Reimagined America (2020), Jon Wilkman suggests various reasons for the rise of documentary filmmaking in the last two decades. He observes that “the internet brought new means to fund, shoot, edit, and distribute” documentary films and that “technology [such as YouTube and webcams] also made it easier for media consumers to become media makers, creating their own screened reality” (Wilkman 2020, 391). Wilkman also recognizes that cable TV and streaming have led to more options for viewers when choosing what to watch, and he argues that documentary films earned a “new respect” at the start of the twenty-first century as many “successful fiction producers and directors” (more than at any time since World War II) turned to documentary filmmaking; these filmmakers include Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Clint Eastwood, and James Cameron (2020, 392). Wilkman proposes that contemporary documentarians are “eager to be accepted as creative storytellers, not only earnest educators or staid journalists” (2020, 392). In a 2021 NAB Amplify article, “So Here We Are in a Golden Age of Documentaries,” Adrian Pennington quotes filmmakers who argue that documentary films are now considered more entertaining by viewers and are easier to make as more funding is available. Documentaries are more profitable than ever before; while still not as profitable as Hollywood’s biggest fiction releases, the profit margin for documentaries is higher. In addition, more creative storytelling techniques are being used, including visual effects usually seen in Hollywood blockbusters. While earlier documentary filmmakers likely wanted to be seen as creative storytellers, it is today’s documentarians that many recognize as participating in a golden age.


Despite the consensus among documentary film professionals that the early twenty-first century is a golden age of documentary films, some have made dissenting points. In her 2019 article “Beyond Environmental Gloom and Doom in the ‘Golden Age’ of Documentary Film,” Melissa Fondakowski acknowledges that “the media landscape has shifted, and documentaries are now enjoying what many are calling a Golden Age,” which she are argues is largely because the “entertainment value of documentaries is on the rise” thanks to streaming services like Netflix and the fact that more people are watching documentaries than ever before (2019, 29).[6]  However, Fondakowski also notes that documentaries are still not very diverse, even though more are being made and there are more production and distribution opportunities (2019, 29). To support her claim that documentary films could be more diverse, Fondakowski quotes the Center for Media & Social Impact’s 2018 Documentary Film Diversity Report, which states that “documentaries are still largely white and male” and that “of the documentary films that were nominated for Academy Awards in 2018, a whopping 80 percent were focused on social justice issues, but only 12 percent were produced or directed by people of color, and only 36 percent by women” (2019, 29). As these statistics imply, filmmaking in general is still a largely white and male industry. Liu’s Minding the Gap is, in fact, one of only seventeen documentary feature films directed by Asian filmmakers to be nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar (and the first was in the 1970s). The main point of Fondakowski’s article is that more documentaries about environmental issues are needed, and her article highlights how groups such as the New York Community Trust and the Redford Center are funding more environmental documentaries to address issues of climate change, extinction, and the like (2019). Consequently, Fondakowski rightly raises the point that documentary films should be more diverse in front of and behind the camera, but she also sees that efforts are being made to address urgent and underrepresented topics and voices.[7]  

Despite the fact that documentary filmmaking should be more diverse, it is hard to argue that documentary filmmaking is not in a golden age, especially given the evidence (briefly recounted above). Box office numbers are also evidence of documentaries’ increased popularity in recent decades.[8] Most of the highest-grossest documentary films of all time (adjusted for inflation) are from the last forty years (Box Office Mojo). In the top ten, the oldest films are Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore, 2004) and March of the Penguins (Luc Jacquet, 2005), which are the two highest-grossing documentaries of all time (Box Office Mojo). In the top fifty, there are only four films not made in the twenty-first century; these four come from the 1980s and 1990s (Box Office Mojo). Minding the Gap represents many aspects of “golden age” documentary filmmaking: it is diverse, critically acclaimed, available for a wide audience on a streaming service, and uses innovative and creative storytelling devices. It also offers a distinctly intersectional approach to exploring the causes of oppression in the lives of the films’ subjects.

Background on Minding the Gap

Minding the Gap can be difficult to describe because touches on many topics. Yet interviews with Liu provide information about how and why the film was made. According to Liu, the film was shot over twelve years, and the narrative and themes were “reverse-engineered” during principal photography and post-production (NBC News 2019).[9] Liu explains that he started the film in his early twenties when he spent a year traveling America, interviewing skateboarders for a documentary about their past traumas, especially those who were victims of violence in the home (NBC News 2019). Liu then returned to Rockford, where he reconnected with Zack and where he first met Keire – Liu knew of Keire before filming, and they had mutual friends, but they were not close until filming began (NBC News 2019). At the time, Zack was about to become a father for the first time (with Nina), and Keire was in the process of coping with his father’s death (NBC News 2019). Like Liu, Zack and Keire are victims of violence in the home, which is why he chose them to be the film’s main subjects (NBC News 2019). Most of the film’s footage was shot over two years; the archival footage was added in the editing process to extend the film’s timeline of events to cover twelve years (NBC News 2019). 

According to Liu, the film also took shape after he got a fellowship with Kartemquin Films, and he “free-based” many vérité films, including Kartemquin Films’s Hoop Dreams, from which he drew inspiration when choosing to focus on the lives of two individuals over an extended period of time (NBC News 2019). Liu claims that Hoop Dreams and Steve James’s film Stevie (2001), along with Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001) and Ross McElwee’s seminal personal/self-reflexive documentary Sherman’s March (1985), were all films that he drew inspiration from and that helped him fix various ethical “problems” he encountered while filming (NBC News 2019). For example, Liu claims that he did not originally plan to be in the film himself, but he took inspiration from Sherman’s March when deciding to be a character in the film in order to solve an ethical problem (NBC News 2019). According to Liu, he only made the decision to be on camera as a subject in the film after he found out that Zack might be physically abusing Nina (NBC News 2019). Liu argues that by showing how his story parallels the lives of the other subjects, he is not an outsider exploiting them, unlike earlier ethnographic or vérité filmmakers who profited from making films about the suffering of other people (NBC News 2019). To further avoid exploiting the films’ other subjects, Liu also screened the film for the other subjects and secured their permission before releasing the film to the public (NBC News 2019). 

When asked if he purposely made the film to be “politically resonant” or if the subjects’ lives are meant to be “symbolic of larger issues in the country,” Liu argues that he wanted to avoid what other documentaries (no examples are given) he had seen were doing, which is “blaming socio-economic status on individuals” (NBC News 2019). So while Liu does not explicitly say that he set out to make a documentary that portrays generational abuse and poverty in an intersectional way, he does explain that he wanted to “do the films’ subjects and the city of Rockford justice’” when showing how their socioeconomic status is not a result of individuals/individuals’ choices but instead the intersection of multiple factors including race and gender. In the end, according to Liu, the film is designed for “the twelve-year-old in rural Arkansas” who is being beaten at home and does not know how to talk about it or who to talk to, and it is meant to reassure them that they can survive their current circumstances and overcome the trauma that comes with it – in the same way that Keire and Nina arguably do by the end of the film (NBC News 2019). While the film arguably does serve the purposes that Liu set out for it, Minding the Gap clearly also represents the need for a society that tackles inequality and oppression in an intersectional way – which is characteristic of the contemporary golden age of documentary filmmaking.

Close Analysis of Minding the Gap and Intersectionality

The film conveys the sense that the multiple subjects’ perspectives must be seen as a collective with shared experiences and as individual viewpoints that reflect unique experiences. This complex understanding gives a full account of the trauma they have all experienced as members of the same community, without reductively suggesting that their experiences are identical or that one is more important than the other. In this way, the film is distinctly intersectional. Unlike traditional voice-of-god narration, usually provided by the (male) filmmaker, used in mainstream documentaries including Sherman’s March and Hoop Dreams, Minding the Gap features voiceover from various subjects (primarily Zack, Keire, and Nina) at different points throughout the film. Liu is not featured in voiceover; the approach limits his authorial voice and suggests that the film seeks to explore a range of perspectives rather than one omniscient and singular voice. 

Along with the multiple perspectives conveyed by the voiceover, Liu’s footage affords the viewer many ways to learn about the experiences of the subjects, and it requires close attention when analyzing the film to understand how the various aspects of the subjects’ identities are presented and explored. Liu and the other subjects of the film never explicitly verbalize their class status, for example, but the different class positions that the subjects occupy become clear through the mise-en-scène. Throughout the film, Zack, Nina, Keire, and Keire’s mother Roberta, as well as Liu’s half brother Kent and his mother Mengyue, are filmed in various locations, including their homes, workplaces, and social settings. The subjects’ homes in particular reveal that they do not all belong to the same social class. Keire lives outside of Rockford in an older, rundown suburb. His house exhibits a lot of wear and tear, and his bedroom is cluttered and cramped (clothes, food, and trash are strewn about in every inch of the room). Zack’s house is also in an older neighborhood but is somewhat nicer than Keire’s house (until Zack and his roommates abandon it when they cannot pay the rent and leave the dog to defecate in the vacant house for several weeks). The house Liu grew up in is like Zack’s, in an older neighborhood in Rockford, and it is similar in size. The home of Nina’s aunt and uncle is the nicest; it is on a secluded piece of property and is clearly newer than the homes of the other subjects (less wear and tear and a more modern design). By showing but not commenting on these differences, the film recognizes the subjects’ distinct socioeconomic situations in its intersectional consideration of their lives.

One of the most important scenes in the film is Liu’s interview with his mother because it encapsulates one of the main themes of the film (the importance of confronting past traumas in order to move beyond them) and showcases the importance of intersectional analysis when getting at the root causes of domestic abuse. In the interview scene, Liu sits across from his mother, Mengyue, and asks her about his stepfather Dennis. The lighting setup, sound equipment, and camera are all visible in the frame as Liu faces his mother. The scene begins playfully as Liu asks Mengyue to clap her hands in front of her face. She responds shyly by haphazardly clapping her hands. She asks, “What was that for?” which signals to the viewer that she is seemingly in an inferior position as she is unsure of how the production process works, let alone what questions she will be asked. The tone of the interview then shifts as Liu asks her “Who is Dennis?” and “Did you know that the first time I was ever alone with him, that’s when he . . . grabbed me?” Mengyue asks for clarification and avoids responding with a direct answer. Liu then asks her, “How much did you know about what was happening?” Mengyue gets defensive and becomes more closed off. She avoids addressing how the abuse affected her and Liu and does not allow for a resolution of the conflict. The incomplete sentences of Liu and his mother in this scene produce a fractured understanding of their past with Dennis. Mengyue does not say it in the interview, but her choice to stay with Dennis clearly stemmed from the need to maintain a heteronormative family unit as a divorced Chinese immigrant mother and the need for a second income to maintain a household after her divorce. Race, gender, and class are all key to understanding Mengyue’s motivations, even though they are not explicitly stated.

During the film’s dénouement, the interview between Liu and his mother is intercut back into the narrative and reaches its climax. In this portion of the interview, the power shifts and Liu’s mother guides the conversation. She asks him if he “gets angry” when he thinks about his stepfather, and she tells him that not talking or thinking about his stepfather is “not going to work.” In the next segment of the interview, there is a cut to Mengyue (now in tears), and their conversation hints at the central personal motivation Liu had in making the film. She says, “If you want to do this film, do anything that can help you heal, that’s fine . . . you cannot change the past,” which prompts Liu to say, “Well, the reason why I wanted to make this film was . . ..” He then abruptly stops, changes focus, and says, “Maybe I’m . . . maybe you’re right . . . maybe I just need to move on and not dwell in the past [sic].” Rather than articulating his own thoughts on why he made the film and how he feels about his past trauma, Liu defers to his mother in this moment. The interview ends when Liu abruptly calls for a “cut” after his mother says, “However I can make you feel better, that’s fine.” Instead of cutting, as Liu directed, the shot then lingers on Liu, half on and half off the screen on the right edge of the frame, which reflects his split position (as the creator and primary subject of the film). Intercut with the interview between Liu and his mother, the film also attempts to provide closure to the narratives of Zack and Keire. By cutting between the trio’s stories of abuse in the past and the present, Liu ultimately showcases the unique and complex set of factors that led each of them to be abused by their fathers/father figures. 

The perspective of Liu and his family, friends, and community appears unified at the beginning of the film, or for the first act. In other words, the film presents all the subjects in the film in a unified way to highlight what they have in common before fragmenting the perspectives in order to highlight their differences in an intersectional way. This is one primary way that the form of the film can be read as intersectional. On the surface, the opening scene may seem like the antithesis of the film’s attempts to explore the deeper connections between Liu, his friends, and their community. The opening shots feature Zack and Keire (along with a few other male friends) as they try to climb a fire escape to the top level of a parking garage. There is then a cut to the group of men at the top of the garage as they prepare to skate down through the levels and out onto the streets. The opening scene then turns into one of the most poetic sequences of the film. The intimate handheld camerawork mimics the free-flowing and unrestrained movements of the skateboarders, which mirror and set up the fluid and open way that Liu attempts to examine his own life, his friends’ lives, and their community throughout the film. The film’s bittersweet instrumental score plays diegetically on the soundtrack as the men effortlessly flow through the city, both as individuals and parts of a collective (of friends and a community). While this scene could suggest that the film is about friendship and skateboarding, upon closer examination, the tone of the energetic score and the raw observational footage of the men skating together as a tight-knit unit merely serves as preamble to the deeper individual examination of the subjects to come that exposes the many differences and divisions between them.

For the first act of the film, the lead trio of friends are presented as a unified group, and the things they have in common are the focus. For example, throughout the film are various scenes that feature observational footage of Zack, Keire, and Liu skateboarding. The function of these scenes evolves over the course of the film. In the beginning, these sequences establish the immediate link between the three. Several montages of the trio when they were younger are playfully edited to reflect their close bonds (they use jump cuts and are scored to upbeat pop-rock songs) and establish how long they have known each other as well as how they have all turned to skateboarding as a way of coping with the challenges in their lives. Skateboarding is also one of the only recreational activities that all members of the trio can afford to participate in, as the cost to skate is low compared to other youth sports programs or activities. Similar shots of the trio skating together around the city in the present day are prevalent in the first half of the film. In one early scene, Liu goes to the local skate shop to have his board repaired. While there, he interviews Erik (the owner) about when he first met him and his friends and what his first impression of them was when they were younger. Erik can be seen as an older man that the boys looked up to and felt comfortable with growing up, in contrast to how they felt about their real fathers or stepfathers. Overall, skateboarding is one of the main things that unites the film’s three primary subjects. 

As the narrative progresses, the scenes of the trio skating (in the past and present) become less frequent and more somber (the music played diegetically during these scenes is also more somber and sinister in tone) and do not feature them as a group. In one poignant scene Keire talks in voiceover about how skateboarding was an escape for him growing up. He says that his father believed he was “wasting his time” on the sport and wanted him to be a carpenter. This voiceover plays while Keire is shown riding around the city until his board breaks. He goes on to say that he wishes his father could have seen how good he has gotten and that he wishes he could make him proud with his skateboarding. In this scene, it is also revealed that skateboarding acts as a potential source of income for the trio. During an early scene, Zack discusses how his father owned the first indoor skatepark in Rockford and how he attempts to start his own (both were failed ventures). Near the end of the film, Keire moves to Colorado in an attempt to get on a sponsored team and make a better life for himself away from Rockford (it is revealed that he succeeds in this endeavor in the credits of the film). There are also several cutaway shots of the boards with messages written on them (in sharpie), including “THIS DEVICE CURES HEARTACHE [sic]” and “SOME MEN, CANNOT BE NEGOTIATED OR REASONED WITH, SOME MEN, JUST WANT TO WATCH THE WORLD BURN [sic],” which externally articulate and reflect the dual hopefulness/hopelessness that the subjects feel throughout the film. By the end of the film, the focus on skateboarding reflects the subjects’ relationships, passions, and trauma (the personal) as well as the film’s larger focus on poverty in Rockford (the ethnographic), which led many youths in the area to turn to skateboarding as a job opportunity and an escape from domestic abuse.

As the film moves into its second act, the film shifts to highlight the individual and distinct perspectives of the film’s subjects. In other words, the narrative structure becomes more fragmented, and Liu explores the lives of the subjects individually. By doing this, Liu shows the ways in which the film’s subjects experience inequality and oppression in different ways and for different reasons. For example, Keire’s story in the film is intersectional in that it considers how his race, gender, and class status have affected his upbringing. Several scenes throughout the film feature Keire discussing what it is like to be Black in America. In one scene, Keire and his (unnamed) African American friend are shot standing by Keire’s new car. A woman passes by and says they “look guilty.” Keire and his friend respond by saying that “people always say that,” and they proceed to talk about racial profiling by the police. In this scene, Keire also points to his dashboard and tells his friend that he has to keep his license and registration in plain sight so that he does not have to turn away from the police and reach into his console, which could potentially alarm the cops and make them pull a gun on him (which he states has happened before). Later in the film, Keire is shown at a party at Zack’s house. He passively looks on as his friends watch a video that is essentially one long string of racial slurs. Keire is visibly tense and uncomfortable at this moment; he is the only one in the group that does not laugh at the video. This scene is countered later in the film when Keire talks with his seemingly more responsible group of racially diverse friends about how his father tried to teach him about what it means to be a Black man in America. In this scene, Keire is able to talk more openly about his views on race than when he is with his and Zack’s posse (who are mostly white). Keire’s other group of friends are also clearly more middle class (based on the quality of the apartment) than Zack, yet another reason Keire is more arguably comfortable around his more responsible and diverse group of friends. Rather than distracting from the scenes in the film in which his race is not a focus, the recognition of Keire’s racial identity show how race and class intersect and make Keire subject to the most oppressive forms of systemic racism and class hierarchy; as such, he is shown to be like the other subjects in some ways and yet different in other ways.

The women in the film are as important to the narrative as the men. Each one is explored individually during the second act of the film, and it is revealed that their perspectives are similar to yet distinct from the film’s other subjects. Like her male counterparts, over the course of the film it is revealed that Nina grew up without a healthy relationship with her parents and that she is a victim of domestic abuse (by Zack). After breaking up with Zack, Nina moves in with her aunt and uncle, where she claims to know what having a family is like for the first time in her life. In the early scenes of the film, Nina appears in the background of scenes that feature Zack. As the film progresses, it is revealed that Zack and Nina often get into verbal arguments that escalate to physical violence, thereby alluding to the continuation of the generational cycle of violence that they experienced and are potentially passing on to their son. Similar to Nina, Roberta (Keire’s mother) is verbally abused and controlled by her current boyfriend; he can be heard ordering her to stop filming offscreen during an interview. Therefore, the film suggests that its subjects are all victims of abuse – and, in many cases, perpetrators of it. Liu is careful to include the revelation that the men were victims of trauma in the past but to show that the women are still experiencing it in the present, which further demonstrates the film’s efforts to present trauma and inequality in an intersectional rather than totalizing way. Near the end of the film, Nina files for child support and seems to be moving on from Zack. It is also revealed that Roberta has broken up with her boyfriend, ending the film on a hopeful note for the women. It is difficult to see these women verbally abused by their romantic partners, and it is clear from their actions that the motivations for their actions largely stem from financial dependence and the pressure (and the desire) to maintain some semblance of a heteronormative family unit.

Moving beyond the individual subjects’ shared generational abuse and trauma, there are several scenes in which the primary and secondary individual subjects are completely absent from the frame and soundtrack. Here, the film is more traditionally ethnographic (and less personal or autoethnographic), but these scenes showcase how the community of Rockford at large is struggling due to limited job opportunities, which has resulted in high rates of domestic abuse city wide (and gives further context to the subjects’ upbringing). The first scene without the individual subjects of the film is a montage comprised of shots of rundown and failed businesses across Rockford. During this sequence, archival news reports playing in voiceover comment on the economic decline of the area. The soundbites include statistics such as “60,000 people in Rockford make less than fifteen dollars an hour” and “out of all the cities in Illinois, the largest number of people have moved away from Rockford since 2010.” This scene reflects how poverty has affected the larger community of Rockford and mirrors the suffering that the individual subjects face due to their low socioeconomic status (among other factors). In another sequence later in the film (the second one without the individual subjects), shots of suburban houses are shown as a voiceover of archival news reports on crime in Rockford play on the soundtrack. In the voiceover, the news reporters read out crime statistics such as “The city of Rockford is ranked as the number two most dangerous city with a population of under 200,000 people” and “About a fourth of the violent crime in Rockford can be attributed to domestic violence incidents.” Like the scene about poverty in Rockford, this sequence reveals how the entire area is affected by domestic violence in a way that is similar to how the film’s individual subjects experience it. There are also several shots of billboards in the city that read, “you don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect parent” (an ad for adoption) and “skateboards happen, fortunately there’s ortho express,” which links the issues of the film’s individual subjects to their wider culture. 

The tensions of the film reach a climax in the final ten minutes as all three main male characters reach their breaking point. In one of the film’s most cynical moments, Zack tells Liu, “You can’t beat up women, but some bitches need to get slapped sometimes.” After allowing the film’s tensions to explode – all three male subjects break down in tears as they confront their past trauma directly – the film suggests how each of them has grown and changed. 

The film ends by bringing Liu, his friends, and their community back together in images that are similar to the opening sequence of the film. Footage of Zack, Liu, and Keire from across the entire film flashes across the screen in their respective montages, using the same amount of footage, type of footage, and shot transitions in all three montages. It is in this moment that the film reflects an intersectional view of the subjects’ lives for the final time. The editing in this sequence allows the mens’ stories to be told in parallel but not all at once. Rather than consonance and resolution in the three identical yet separate montages, the film once again shows that the three primary subjects in the film are on disparate paths and that there are irreconcilable differences between them that are a product of their different societal positions, despite the many things they have in common. Rather than attempting to give a universalizing account of the film’s subjects in the final moments through the editing, the lived experiences of the subjects are explored for both how they are different from one another and how they are alike. The film refuses to use a universalizing voice-of-god narration (a staple of early ethnographic documentaries) or a segment near the end of the film in which the filmmaker (one of the subjects) attempts to neatly summarize and conclude the filmic events in a totalizing way. Consequently, Minding the Gap refuses to reduce the film’s exploration of the various axes of inequality (suffered by the filmmaker, his family, his friends, their families, and the community at large) to a simple, one-dimensional view.

Conclusion: Why Intersectionality Matters in Documentary Films

In America today, an intersectional approach to depicting inequality on the level of identity and class is arguably what viewers most need from films right now, as America’s ongoing fight for equality hinges on an understanding of individuals’ experiences as shared in some ways yet also distinctly unique in other ways. I grew up in a racially mixed working-class suburb in Arlington, Texas, and knew countless people with stories similar to Liu and the films’ other subjects; many of my friends (including all my boyfriends) were abused by their parents (mentally, physically, verbally, or sometimes all three), and many of those same friends were skateboarders because skateboarding allowed them to escape from their troubles in the home. Minding the Gap’s exploration of identity and class inequality and oppression is the most realistic I have seen on screen. My hope is that many more films like Minding the Gap will emerge in the coming years to confirm the medium’s ability to represent new voices, perspectives, and issues of identity and inequality in an intersectional way. I also hope that scholars continue to analyze intersectionality in documentary filmmaking, especially because Minding the Gap suggests that its nuanced perspective is one of the salient aspects of the current golden age of documentary filmmaking.


 [1] Older documentaries that take an intersectional approach when examining the identity of the filmmakers and the causes of oppression in America include Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994), Tongues Untied (Marlon Riggs, 1989), and Paris is Burning (Jennie Livingston, 1990). These films were all made when intersectionality was first coined, and they showcase the many ways documentaries previous to the golden age had already begun to explore intersectionality.

[2] The only other source that mentions intersectionality in Minding the Gap is an article about the 2019 Disorient Asian American Film Festival of Oregon (written by Kiana Nadonza to promote the festival). The article mentions that the films shown in the festival that year, including Minding the Gap, “promote intersectional approaches to diversity, culture, and identity – which this article also argues is one way to interpret the film” (Nadonza 2019).

[3] It is difficult to pin down exactly when the first time the phrase “the golden age of documentary” was used, but James was one of the earliest found through research.

[4] In his Summer 2019 The Beat article, Tanner Shinnick quotes documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville, who states, “When I started, documentaries were like the spinach of filmmaking . . .Now, we’re in this amazing golden era of documentary and nonfiction storytelling, that just keeps getting more interesting” (2019). Neville’s quote echoes Coogan’s and James’s, and Shinnick himself gives similar reasons to Falcon as to why we are currently in the golden age of documentary filmmaking including starting his article by saying that documentary film “has never been as accessible, diverse, or well-respected” as it is “right now” (2019). Shinnick also argues that there is a higher “demand” for documentaries than ever before, which has led to a higher “supply” of documentaries than ever before (2019).

[5] Coogan’s company produced and funded one hundred documentary films including the Best Documentary Oscar winner Icarus (Bryan Fogel, 2017) and the highest-grossing documentary film of 2018, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Morgan Neville, 2018).

[6] Fondakowski states, “According to Netflix, in 2016 alone, more than 73 percent of their subscribers watched a documentary . . .That is sixty-eight million people — and on Netflix alone” (2019). Netflix’s success with documentaries has continued in the last few years, and many are arguing that 2022 in particular has been a fantastic year for documentaries on the platform (Serrels 2022).

[7] Fondakowski is not the only one to call out contemporary documentaries for not being as “golden” as possible. In a 2012 Slate article entitled “We’re Living in a Golden Age of Documentary Filmmaking: But you’d never know it from watching the Oscars,” Eric Hynes argues that documentary filmmaking may be in its golden age but that it is still underappreciated and represented at the Oscars (2012). As of 2022, no documentary feature has been nominated for Best Picture, so Hynes may be right in saying that documentary films are not appreciated by critics (or specifically Academy Awards voters) on the same level as narrative films as of yet.

[8] Documentaries were not shown widely in theaters before the 1980s, which does partly explain why they were not profitable at the box office until recently. With more documentaries released in theaters than ever before in the last twenty years, it does make sense that so many more recent films are the highest grossing films at the box office.

[9] Liu shot all of the present-day film footage (from 2013 to 2015) on a Canon EOS 300 and all of the archival footage on DSLRs. Some of the archival footage of Keire was not shot by Liu (as he did not know him well until he began filming him at 18); he sourced it from other friends of Keire and local skaters (Film Courage 2018).


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Dowell, Ben. 2011. “Steve James hails a ‘golden age of documentary film-making.’” The Guardian, June 6, 2011.

Falcon, Gabriel. 2019. “The Golden Age of documentary filmmaking.” CBS News, March 3, 2019.

Film Courage. “How Bing Liu Went From Skateboard Videographer To Sundance Award Winning Filmmaker [FULL INTERVIEW].” YouTube Video, 26:04, August 23, 2018.

Fondakowski, Melissa. 2019. “Beyond Environmental Gloom and Doom in the ‘Golden Age’ of Documentary Film.” GIA Reader 30, no. 2 (Summer 2019): 29–34.


Hancock, Ange-Marie. 2016. Intersectionality: An Intellectual History. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hynes, Eric. 2012. “We’re Living in a Golden Age of Documentary Filmmaking: But you’d never know it from watching the Oscars.” Slate, February 14, 2012.

Nadonza, Kiana. 2019. “#DisOrient2019: 5 Things to Know About Oregon’s Only Asian-American Indie Film Fest!” March 2019.

NBC News. 2019. “Director Bing Liu On Filmmaking, And Why His Film Is Called ‘Minding The Gap.’” Uploaded February 18, 2019. Video, 19:57.

Ochefu, Amara. 2021. “The history of intersectionality and the Black feminists behind it.” Assembly, May 5, 2021.

Pennington, Adrian. 2021. “So Here We Are in a Golden Age of Documentaries.” NAB Amplify, May 17, 2021.

Serrels, Mark. 2022. “The Best Documentaries on Netflix Right Now.” CNET, September 18, 2022.

Shinnick, Tanner. 2019. “Why We’re in the Golden Age of Documentary Filmmaking.” The Beat, July 22, 2019.

Wilkman, Jon. 2020. “Getting Real in a Golden Age: All That Glitters.” In Screening Reality: How Documentary Filmmakers Reimagined America. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.

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