It’s that time of year again: The onset of cooler temperatures and the steady march toward the Winter Solstice means we’re spending more time inside. Combined with time away from school and work this holiday season, it’s a perfect opportunity to kick back, relax, and watch some mindless movies.
Or hey, they all don’t have to be mindless! We may well be living in the golden age of documentary filmmaking: Recent years have produced some of the best nonfiction films in decades about politics, history, and democracy – so many that you may have trouble figuring out where to start. Fortunately, we’ve assembled 12 documentaries and docuseries that we believe are worthy of your time this winter. Take a closer look at these dozen films and series that will keep you engaged until spring.
2022 (115 minutes)
From PBS, follow the pursuit of democracy from the Revolutionary War through recurring cycles of civil rights progress and backlash, the 2021 Capitol insurrection, and beyond. Explore the impact of voting rights and a civics curriculum on engaged and informed citizenship.
2020 (109 minutes)
A wildly entertaining, continually revealing immersion into a week-long annual program in which a thousand Texas high school seniors gather for an elaborate mock exercise: building their own state government. Directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, Boys State closely tracks the escalating tensions that arise within a particularly riveting gubernatorial race, training their cameras on unforgettable teenagers of different ideologies and backgrounds. In the process, they create a complex portrait of modern American masculinity as well as a microcosm of our often-dispiriting national political divisions – that nevertheless plant seeds of hope.
2020 (101 minutes)
Slay The Dragon follows everyday people as they fight to make their votes matter amid a secretive, high-tech gerrymandering initiative launched in the second decade of the 21st century that now threatens to undermine American democracy. A grassroots movement led by a young woman with no prior political experience gathers influence to protect voting rights and end electoral maps being re-drawn to serve the party in power.
2021 (Six-episode docuseries)
Filmmakers Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau take a deep look at the state of U.S. immigration. This six-part series captures the daily workings of everyone involved, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, activists, lawmakers, attorneys, and undocumented immigrants, both newcomers and longtime residents.
2020 (96 minutes)
At a defining moment in U.S. history, ACLU lawyers continue their legal battles for LGBTQ rights, immigration laws, abortion rights, and more. Produced by Kerry Washington and directed by Eli Despres, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, The Fight follows the ACLU’s rigorous cases during the Trump administration.
2022 (99 minutes)
Based on the bestselling biography by Jeanne Theoharis and executive produced by award-winning journalist Soledad O’Brien, this crucial documentary on the “mother of the Civil Rights movement,” Rosa Parks, is a comprehensive telling of the icon’s lifelong dedication to activism. The film chronicles her historic role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, her work in politics alongside Congressman John Conyers in Detroit, and the many causes along the way, such as voting rights and reparations, that she fearlessly championed until her death in 2005.
2022 (101 minutes)
In spring 1972, police raided a Chicago apartment where seven women who were part of a clandestine network were arrested and charged. Using code names, fronts, and safe houses to protect themselves and their work, the accused had built an underground service for women seeking safe, affordable, illegal abortions. They called themselves “Jane.” The Janes offers first-hand accounts from the women at the center of the group in the pre-Roe v. Wade era, many speaking on the record for the first time.
2022 (100 minutes)
A real-time portrait of 2020 unfolds as an Asian-American family in rural America fights to keep their restaurant and American dream alive in the face of a pandemic, Neo-Nazis, and generational scars from the Killing Fields. Making discomfiting statements about American political willpower and race relations, Bad Axe offers a close-up perspective on societal turmoil during COVID.
Streaming options – 1–2
Ken Burns’ two-part, four-hour documentary explores the revolutionary life of one of the 18th century’s most consequential figures. Episode One chronicles his Boston childhood, his printing empire in Philadelphia, and his fascination with science that earned him worldwide fame. Episode Two focuses on his role in American independence and the drafting of the U.S. Constitution.
Web of Make Believe: Death, Lies, and the Internet
Conspiracy. Fraud. Violence. Murder. What starts out virtual can get real all too quickly — and when the web is worldwide, so are the consequences. Web of Make Believe explores the dark side of the world wide web through interviews with victims, witnesses, and perpetrators. The six-part series tells the stories of people caught up in misinformation and digital deception, from “SWATing”, the rabbit hole of white supremacy, and the Russian election interference.
Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches
2022 (58 min)
After his escape from slavery at 20, Frederick Douglass became the most famous Black man in the 19th century, known for the power of his words. Douglass was a powerful writer and master orator, crafting speeches that called out American hypocrisy and challenged the nation to live up to its founding principles. Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches offers a new approach to understanding Douglass’ story, guided entirely by his own words to chart his rise from a passionate young agitator to a composed statesman, and ultimately to a disenchanted but still hopeful older man. Though his actual voice was never recorded, the power of these performances offers an opportunity to hear the potency of his words with timely urgency over a century after his time.
Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America
2021 (118 min)
Interweaving lectures, personal anecdotes, interviews, and shocking revelations, in Who We Are, criminal defense and civil rights lawyer Jeffery Robinson draws a stark timeline of anti-Black racism in the United States, from slavery to the modern myth of a post-racial America.