In this world full of fake news, it’s heartening to know that there’s at least one art form that you can rely on for the truth. By its very nature, a documentary film is fact-based. It is what it is. As Alfred Hitchcock supposedly once observed, “In feature films, the director is God; In documentaries, God is the director.”
A new study out last week from the Center for Media and Social Impact highlights the valuable role that documentary films play in exploring the real-life consequences of many of the problems plaguing our democracy, such as systemic racism, political corruption, mass incarceration, climate change inaction, and other injustices.
The study, “Breaking the Silence: How Documentaries Can Shape the Conversation on Racial Violence in America and Create New Communities,” was conducted earlier this year. It focused on participants’ reactions to the ITVS/Independent Lens film Always in Season, which explored the lingering impact of more than a century of lynching African Americans and how that history connects to racial violence today.
“Intimate, truthful independent documentaries play a unique role in fostering civil public dialogue around complex social problems,” the study authors said in joint statement. “It’s meaningful, in these divisive times, to understand the richness of community conversations around racial justice that took place when people were able to watch Always in Season together.”
The same could be said for so many great documentary films available to stream in our homes. Films that chronicle the real-life implications of so many issues that are so pertinent to the November election, including voting rights, climate change, immigration issues, heath care, civil rights, national security and systemic racism.
So here are 14 documentary films that we recommend watching before Election Day. All are available to stream in your living room.
14. What Is Democracy?
Director Astra Taylor’s idiosyncratic, philosophical journey spans millennia and continents: from ancient Athens’ groundbreaking experiment in self-government to capitalism’s roots in medieval Italy; from modern-day Greece grappling with financial collapse and a mounting refugee crisis to the United States reckoning with its racist past and the growing gap between rich and poor. Featuring a diverse cast, this urgent film connects the past and the present, the emotional and the intellectual, the personal and the political, in order to provoke and inspire. If we want to live in democracy, we must first ask what the word even means. (Streaming: iTunes)
13. The Great Hack
From award-winning filmmakers Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, The Great Hack uncovers the dark world of data exploitation with astounding access to the personal journeys of key players on different sides of the explosive Cambridge Analytica/Facebook data 2016 election scandal. The Great Hack forces us to question the origin of the information we consume daily. What do we give up when we tap that phone or keyboard and share ourselves in the digital age? (Streaming: Netflix)
12. Whose Streets?
Filmmakers Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis know this story because they are the story. Told by the activists and leaders who live and breathe this movement for justice, Whose Streets? is an unflinching look at the Ferguson uprising. When unarmed teenager Michael Brown is killed by police and left lying in the street for hours, it marks a breaking point for the residents of St. Louis, Missouri. Grief, long-standing racial tensions and renewed anger bring residents together to hold vigil and protest this tragedy. (Streaming: Various)
11. Always in Season
When 17-year-old Lennon Lacy is found hanging from a swing set in rural North Carolina in 2014, his mother’s search for justice and reconciliation begins while the trauma of more than a century of lynching African Americans bleeds into the present. (Streaming: Independent Lens, PBS)
10. Totally Under Control
From Academy Award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, directing with Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger, Totally Under Control turns a critical eye to the early days of the pandemic. With damning testimony from public health officials and hard investigative reporting, Gibney exposes a system-wide collapse caused by a profound dereliction of Presidential leadership. It will be a generation before we know the full extent of the damage wrought by this pandemic, but Totally Under Control will stand as the definitive account of the Trump administration’s incompetence, corruption and denial in the face of this global pandemic. (Streaming: iTunes, Vudu)
9. All In: The Fight for Democracy
By all accounts, filmmakers Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés rushed to complete their film in time for this year’s election — and we’re so glad they did. It’s a film that all Americans need to see in order to fully understand the implications of the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. As The New York Times says in its film review, “In a sense, it’s less a documentary for posterity than an urgent broadcast” for right now. (Streaming: Amazon Prime)
8. Agents of Chaos
Another film from Academy-award winner Alex Gibney, Agents of Chaos is a two-part documentary examining Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (Streaming: Amazon Prime)
7. The Fight
The Fight follows a scrappy team of heroic ACLU lawyers in a new documentary by the filmmaking team of Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, makers of 2016’s award-winning Weiner. The ACLU has never granted access to its offices, even as its battles — on the fronts of abortion rights, immigration rights, LGBT rights and voting rights — have become more timely and momentous than ever. (Streaming: Various)
6. John Lewis: Good Trouble
From filmmaker Dawn Porter comes John Lewis: Good Trouble. An intimate account of legendary U.S. Representative John Lewis’ life, legacy and more than 60 years of extraordinary activism — from the bold teenager on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement to the legislative powerhouse he was throughout his career. (Streaming on Amazon Prime)
5. An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power
10 years after An Inconvenient Truth, Vice President Al Gore continues his tireless fight traveling around the world training an army of climate champions and influencing international climate policy. Cameras follow him behind the scenes — in moments both private and public, funny and poignant — as he pursues the inspirational idea that while the stakes have never been higher, the perils of climate change can be overcome with human ingenuity and passion. (Streaming: Amazon Prime)
4. Saving Capitalism
Robert Reich, the Former Secretary of Labor of the United States, examines America’s fragile democracy and its fight for survival; as income and wealth go to the top, more Americans are left behind. Now it’s up to those ordinary Americans to change the rules. Saving Capitalism is now streaming, only on Netflix.
3. Slay the Dragon
In Slay the Dragon, a new documentary from Participant Media, journalists Dave Daley, Ari Berman, Vann Newkirk and others explain how legislators in some key swing states used gerrymandering to draw districts favorable to Republican candidates. Former Wisconsin State Senator Dale Schultz (R) explains, “It really represents legislators picking voters rather than voters picking legislators.” (Streaming: Various)
2. Immigration Nation
With unprecedented access to immigration agents, as well as moving portraits of immigrants, this docuseries takes a deep look at immigration in Trump’s America. (Streaming: Netflix)
Combining archival footage with testimony from activists and scholars, director Ava DuVernay’s examination of the US prison system looks at how the country’s history of racial inequality drives the high rate of incarceration in America. (Streaming for free on YouTube)