A Word About Documentaries
Films that are filled with facts – whether about history, science, nature or whatever – can serve as highly useful learning tools. But let’s be skeptical regarding our viewing habits. The fact that someone has made a film does not necessarily mean that its content is accurate. There’s a lot of fake news floating around out there in documentary land. Remember to consider the source of all the material you may ingest. Ask yourself: How reliable are these films? Who is responsible for them? Are they reputable authorities in their field, with experience and knowledge to back up what they allege? Or are they just blowhards looking to make a reputation for themselves or a profit off a gullible public? What is their political or philosophical slant?
There are both reliable and questionable producers of documentaries. Familiarize yourself with those who consistently observe rules regarding investigative journalism and fact checking. Gravitate toward those. I personally recommend, for example, documentaries prepared by the staffs of programs broadcast on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS): Frontline for recent politics and world affairs; NOVA and Nature for Science; Ken Burns documentaries for History; Point of View (POV) for sociology; etc. In the future we will certainly add to this list. Please feel free to contact me with your own suggestions for inclusion here. – Gary M. Linscott
We live in an era in which movies and documentaries abound. As we choose among the thousands of films available to us on TV, streaming services, and DVDs, we will naturally gravitate toward the genres our friends and family members prefer. And it is only natural that we view a variety of categories of entertainment. But while we may instinctively turn to fictional films, and to comedies and action thrillers, we should not fail to recognize the power of film to instruct and persuade its audiences.
While books and articles are informative for people who read, not everyone reads. Whether you yourself get your information by reading or not, many people – perhaps your friends or family members – gather their impressions of life and reality through works of art. And film, a highly elevated form of art, with its visual stimuli and its musical soundtracks, has the potential to engage and impact our emotions in ways other modes of learning may not. So I would encourage you, if you are wanting to learn something new, to include films in your educational repertoire.
Look for movies and documentaries that will open your mind, and the minds of your associates, to lifestyles, cultures, and modes of thinking that are new to you and your intimate circle. Use your viewing time to inform yourselves about how other people live and think, and in this manner, extend your mental horizons.
On Politics & Governance
PBS Frontline, on China’s surveillance and persecution of Uyghurs
The Comey Rule A 2-Part Miniseries Available on Showtime
An American political drama television miniseries, based on the book A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by former FBI director James Comey.
First Ladies: Michelle Obama (CNN TV, 10-4-20)
All In: The Fight for Democracy, by Stacy Abrams.
Available on Amazon Prime
Examines the issue of voter suppression in the U.S. The film interweaves personal experience with activism and historical insight to expose a problem that has corrupted our country from the beginning. With the expertise of Stacey Abrams, the film offers an insider’s look into the barriers to voting.
Whose Vote Counts?
(PBS Documentary narrated by Jelani Cobb)
Digging into the shifting landscape of voter disenfranchisement and election integrity in our country, looking closely at what had changed since the Supreme Court in 2013 invalidated a core provision of the Voting Rights Act. Then came the coronavirus — and accompanying questions about what happens when more Americans try to vote via mail-in ballot than ever before.
Dismantling Democracy: Land of the Free?
Episode 1, Available on KPBS Passport
Dive into the history of democracy, its birth and the United States' unique take on this form of government. The episode takes a look at some uniquely American challenges that limit American democracy such as hyper partisanship, negative partisanship, institutional constraints (gerrymandering, the Electoral College, voter registration) and more.
Dismantling Democracy: Democracy Around the World
Episode 2, Available on KPBS Passport
Step outside of the United States and explore democracies around the world. We look at issues facing American democracy and how those issues transpire in other democratic countries providing perspective for our own democratic success and weaknesses.
Dismantling Democracy: The Way Forward, Episode 3,
Available on KPBS Passport
Explore what may need to change to preserve American democracy. By looking at the basic pillars of a democratic society – freedom of speech, free and fair elections and a focus on human rights – we are challenged to rise to the occasion, participate in civic discourse and take action.
The United States of Conspiracy (From PBS Frontline)
Investigating the alliance among Infowars conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, longtime Trump associate Roger Stone, and the President.
Enemies of the People: Trump and the Political Press (From VICE News)
The nation’s leading reporters and media figures who covered Trump’s 2016 campaign offer a candid analysis of their role and mistakes in the 2016 election.
On Economic Inequality
Noam Chomsky’s insights into the causes and consequences of income inequality.
Amazon.com: Requiem for the American Dream: Peter D. Hutchison, Kelly Nyks, Jared P. Scott, Peter D. Hutchison, Kelly Nyks, Jared P. Scott, Noam Chomsky, Peter D. Hutchison, Kelly Nyks, Jared P. Scott: Movies & TV
Building the American Dream, on PBS
Texas’ construction boom’s dirty secret: its abuse of immigrant labor.
On Secularism & Religion
Losing Our Religion: Finding Meaning Beyond the Pew
Interviews people who don’t identify with any organized religion, including disbelieving pastors. What's been making people leave religious institutions, and how are they replacing them?
Contradiction: A Question of Faith Available on Prime Video
Addresses the prevalence of churches in Black neighborhoods coexisting with poverty and powerlessness. Is there a correlation between religiosity and poverty?
On Nature & Environmentalism
David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet
On Social Science
The Definition of Insanity, Film (and book) by Norm Ornstein
An inspiring story at the intersection of mental health and the criminal justice system.
Driving While Black (PBS Documentary)
Examines the history of African Americans on the road from the depths of the Depression to the height of the Civil Rights movement and beyond, exploring along the way the deeply embedded dynamics of race, space and mobility in America during one of the most turbulent and transformative periods in American history.
Love Wins Over Hate (PBS Documentary)
A PBS documentary dealing with White Supremacy, explores the personal transformations of six individuals who went from agents of anger and bigotry to advocates for empathy and inclusivity.
The Social Dilemma (On Netflix)
Explores the dangerous human impact of social networking, with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations.
On Feminism & Gender Equality
Mrs. America, Miniseries Available on Hulu
A 9-episode series that tells the story of the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, and the backlash led by Phyllis Schlafly. Separate episodes portray feminists Gloria Steinem, Betty Fredan, Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug and Jill Ruckelshaus.
At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal (2019) Available on HBO Now, HBO Go, Hulu, and Amazon Prime
This film follows the sex abuse and molestation scandal surrounding USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar and how the situation was allowed to persist as long as it did. It is a scathing indictment of institutional abuse that sensitively provides victims with a platform to tell their stories. The documentary exposes the far-reaching consequences of such immorality, which no matter the courageous and inspiring resilience of its many survivors, has clearly left profound, lasting scars.
Period. End of Sentence. (2018) – Available on Netflix
Around the world, girls face barriers to receiving a quality education because they lack access to menstrual health education, adequate water, sanitation, hygiene facilities, and affordable, hygienic menstrual products. In a rural village outside Delhi, India, women lead a quiet revolution. They fight against the deeply rooted stigma of menstruation. Period. End of Sentence. This documentary short tells their story. When a sanitary pad machine is installed in the village, the women learn to manufacture and market their own pads, empowering the women of their community.
The Fight for Women’s Suffrage (Part 1),
A PBS film, from American Experience
Tells the dramatic story of the hard-fought campaign waged by American women for the right to vote that resulted in the largest expansion of voting rights in U.S. history.
The Fight for Women’s Suffrage (Part 2)
A PBS film, from American Experience
Examines the suffrage movement’s dispute over strategy and tactics, and reveals how the pervasive racism of the time, particularly in the South, impacted women's fight for the vote.
Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony
A Ken Burns Film, available on PBS and Amazon Prime Video
On Medicine & Health
What is CRISPR Gene Editing? (from PBS/NOVA)
Scientists have a new tool to edit genes in human cells to repair mutations.
How Does CRISPR Work?
From PBS/NOVA, Season 45, Episode 105
CRISPR makes gene editing faster, cheaper, and easier than ever before. Here's how.
Gene-Editing Reality Check, (from PBS/NOVA)
The revolutionary gene-editing tool known as CRISPR can alter, add, and remove genes from the human genome.
Documentary Sources from PBS Television Programs
A suggestion to the visitors of this website: Go online and click on any of the following links to find scores and scores of intriguing educational documentaries.
Frontline – Available on YouTube, YouTube TV, Google Play, Amazon Prime, iTunes, and Vudu https://www.pbs.org/show/frontline/
NOVA – Available on YouTube, YouTube TV, Google Play, Amazon Prime, and iTunes https://www.pbs.org/show/nova/
Nature – Available on YouTube, YouTube TV, Google Play, Amazon Prime, and iTunes https://www.pbs.org/show/nature/
POV (Point of View) – Available on YouTube, Google Play, Amazon Prime, Vudu, and iTunes http://www.pbs.org/pov/
Ken Burns Documentaries https://www.pbs.org/franchise/ken-burns/
And for Ken Burns documentaries binge watching (during the coronavirus self-quarantine period or whenever), check out the following Inside Hook link:
Critical Thinking (2020) – Available on Amazon Video, Apple TV, and iTunes
Based on a true story from 1998, five Latinx and Black teenagers from the toughest underserved ghetto in Miami fight their way into the National Chess Championship under the guidance of their unconventional but inspirational teacher, Mr. Martínez (John Leguizamo). Critical Thinking shows the battles that minorities have to go through, even when they have the right tools. The principal (Rachel Bay Jones) might treat his classroom like a dumping ground for miscreants, but “chess is the great equalizer,” Martinez tells his multiethnic students, using the game to teach his critical thinking elective -- with a side of racial history discouraged by his school board. The chances of his students getting to the national championship are so low that many would have abandoned it before starting. We need more inspiring stories like this to remind us that it's worth fighting for our goals. Even when everyone else tells us otherwise.
Unpregnant (Released September19, 2020) Available on HBO Max
This film features a pair of teenage women crossing state lines to obtain an abortion. Missouri, the characters’ home state, mandates parental consent for minors. Surprisingly, the film takes this real-world issue as the premise for an energetic buddy comedy. The movie has a plot that could fuel a week of apoplectic segments on Fox News Channel. A 17-year-old high school student named Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) gets pregnant by her boyfriend, despite being a conscientious condom user. She can't get an abortion in Missouri without parental consent, and her ultra-religious, abortion-opposing parents will never allow it, so she convinces her estranged childhood best friend Bailey (Barbie Ferrreria) to drive her to the nearest state that will let her do it. Unpregnant is a road trip movie with a new eccentric character (and supporting performance) waiting in every town. It's also a warmhearted, often wacky teen comedy. Bailey is a bohemian lesbian and latchkey kid raised by a single mom, while Veronica joined a clique of popular, well-to-do, gossipy kids. As the duo drives through Oklahoma and Texas in a muscle car borrowed without Bailey's stepdad's permission, they realize that even though they move in different social universes, they have one crucial thing in common: they're young women struggling to make independent choices in a culturally conservative, right-wing, Christian-defined part of America where men pass laws to control women's bodies. Veronica's punishment – either for not being abstinent, an unrealistic option for most teenagers, or accepting her unexpected pregnancy as God's immutable wish – is to be forced to secretly travel 900 miles over three states, to get to the nearest clinic that will terminate the pregnancy without notifying parents who will never allow it.
Dark Waters (2019) – Available on YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, and Amazon Prime
The story dramatizes Robert Bilott's case against the chemical manufacturing corporation DuPont after they contaminated a town with unregulated chemicals. The chemicals in focus are PFAS, or per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, which are a group of synthetic chemicals that have been used in the United States since 1940. The film is based on the 2016 New York Times Magazine article "The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare" by Nathaniel Rich.
Harriet (2019) – Available on YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, and Amazon Prime
Though she looms large in the public imagination, Harriet Tubman has rarely received the attention afforded to similarly iconic Americans. This biopic starring Cynthia Erivo focuses on the decade between Tubman's escape and the end of her Underground Railroad days. After walking from Maryland and crossing the Pennsylvania state boundary line in September 1849, Tubman dedicated the next decade of her life -- a period chronicled in Harriet – rescuing her family from bondage. Between 1850 and 1860, she returned to Maryland some 13 times, helping around 70 people escape slavery and embark on new lives.
Bombshell (2019) – Available on YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, and Amazon Prime
Bombshell is based on the true events of the Fox News scandal that saw multiple women, including Megyn Kelly, allege they had been sexually harassed by former Fox News CEO and Chairman Roger Ailes. Kelly, who was a news anchor at Fox News from 2004 to 2017, has seen the movie, and is finally speaking out about it. And she's assembled others who were victims of that harassment to tell their stories with her.
1917 (2019) – Available on YouTube, Vudu, Google Play, and Amazon Prime
1917 is a film to remind us of the horrors of war and of the bravery of those who were required to serve in the 'Great War' (which we now call World War I). The film is something of a true story, loosely based on a tale the director Sam Mendes' grandfather – Alfred H. Mendes, who served with the British Army during the First World War – told him as a child. The film takes place in April of 1917 during Operation Alberich – a historically accurate German military withdrawal to stronger positions in northern France.
The Two Popes (2019) – Available on Netflix
Behind the Vatican walls, Pope Benedict and the future Pope Francis must find common ground to forge a new path for the Catholic Church. The film is a biographical drama, set predominantly in the Vatican City in the aftermath of the Vatican leaks scandal. The film follows Pope Benedict XVI, played by Anthony Hopkins, as he attempts to convince Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, played by Jonathan Pryce, to reconsider his decision to resign as an archbishop as he reveals his own intentions to abdicate the papacy.
Richard Jewell (2019) – Available on YouTube, Vudu, Google Play, and Amazon Prime
Clint Eastwood's Richard Jewell tells the true story of the Atlanta security guard who became a prime suspect in the bombing at the 1996 Olympics. When Jewell discovered a backpack containing pipe bombs, he heroically sounded the alarm and cleared the area. The bomb later detonated, killing one person and injuring dozens of others. He was initially praised as a hero, but the FBI later identified him as one of the many suspects, which led the public to vilify Jewell. However, he was ultimately cleared by law enforcement.
JoJo Rabbit (2019) – Available on YouTube, Vudu, Google Play, and Amazon Prime
Insider review: Director Taika Waititi's film is a comedy about a kid who has Adolf Hitler as an imaginary friend. It's also a drama about a young boy in Hitler's youth army discovering his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their home, and soon questioning everything he has been taught as a young Nazi. The blend of these two premises, one wacky and zany, one serious and heartfelt, has proved jarring for some. But In a film like 'Jojo' Rabbit' the juxtaposition of comedy mixed with serious subject matter means the message hits home harder. We feel the sadness and severity with greater impact having just laughed.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) – Available on YouTube, Vudu, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Tom Hanks portrays Mister Rogers in this timely story of kindness triumphing over cynicism, based on the true story of a real-life friendship between Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod. After a jaded magazine writer is assigned to write a profile of Fred Rogers, he overcomes his skepticism, learning about empathy, kindness, and decency from America's most beloved neighbor. (For younger viewers who may not know him, Fred Rodgers was an American television personality, musician, puppeteer, writer, producer, and Presbyterian minister. He was the creator and host of the preschool television series Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, which ran from 1968 to 2001.)
Parasite (2019) – Available on Hulu, YouTube, Vudu, Google Play, and Amazon Prime
A South Korean black comedy thriller film that follows the members of a poor family who scheme to become employed by a wealthy family by infiltrating their household and posing as unrelated, highly qualified individuals. Director Bong Joon-ho comments, "Because the story is about the poor family infiltrating and creeping into the rich house, it seems very obvious that Parasite refers to the poor family. But if you look at it the other way, you can say that the rich family, they're also parasites in terms of labor. They can't even wash dishes, they can't drive themselves, so they leech off the poor family's labor. So both are parasites.”
Roma (2018) – Available on Netflix
This drama (in black and white) follows the life of Cleo, a live-in housekeeper of a middle-class family, as a semi-autobiographical take on Director Alfonso Cuarón's upbringing in the Colonia Roma, a neighborhood of Mexico City. Delivering an artful love letter to the women who raised him, Cuarón draws on his own childhood to create a vivid and emotional portrait of domestic strife and social hierarchy amidst political turmoil of the 1970s. His film explores the theme of loneliness, particularly as it applies to women. The main characters are present and future mothers who are largely abandoned by their significant others.
Green Book (2018) – Available on Showtime, Hulu, YouTube, Vudu, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Dr. Don Shirley is a world-class African-American pianist, who is about to embark on a concert tour in the Deep South in 1962. In need of a driver and protection, Shirley recruits Tony Lip, a tough-talking bouncer from an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx. Despite their differences, the two men soon develop an unexpected bond while confronting racism and danger in an era of segregation. (Interestingly, Shirley’s family believes the film portrays the white driver as a hero while revealing little of the pianist’s true personality and genius.)
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) – Available on Hulu, YouTube, Vudu, Google Play, and Amazon Prime An American romantic drama film based on James Baldwin's novel of the same name. The film follows a young woman who, with her family's support, seeks to clear the name of her wrongly charged lover and prove his innocence before the birth of their child.
Come Sunday (2018) – Available on Netflix
Come Sunday is based on the true story of Carlton Pearson, a beloved Oklahoma bishop — and favored protégé of evangelist kingmaker Oral Roberts — whose cleaving from Pentecostal gospel caused a deep schism not only inside his own soul, but in his marriage and large Tulsa congregation as well.
Spotlight (2015) – Available on YouTube, Vudu, Google Play, Amazon Prime and iTunes
This film follows The Boston Globe's "Spotlight" team, the oldest continuously operating newspaper investigative journalist unit in the United States, and its investigation into cases of widespread and systemic child sex abuse in the Boston area by numerous Roman Catholic priests. Its probe uncovered a scandal that reached beyond the city and up to the highest levels of the Catholic Church. And their scrutiny was met with stonewalling at every turn.
Fair Game – Available on YouTube, Tubi, Vudu, Google Play, Amazon Prime, and iTunes
A 2010 biographical political drama film starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. It is based on CIA operative Valerie Plame's memoir, Fair Game, and Joseph C. Wilson's memoir, The Politics of Truth. In it Valerie Plame discovers her identity is allegedly leaked by the government as payback for an op-ed article her husband wrote criticizing the Bush administration. The film won the "Freedom of Expression Award" from the National Board of Review.
Milk – Available on YouTube, Vudu, Google Play, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and iTunes
A 2008 biographical film based on the life of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California, as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The film stars Sean Penn as Milk and Josh Brolin as Dan White, a city supervisor who assassinated Milk and Mayor George Moscone in 1978. Milk is seen recording his will throughout the film, nine days before the assassinations. The last scene is a candlelight vigil held by thousands for Milk and Moscone throughout the streets of the city. Pictures of the actual people depicted in the film, and brief summaries of their lives follow.
Brokeback Mountain – Available on YouTube, Vudu, Google Play, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and iTunes
A 2005 American romantic drama film depicting the complex emotional and sexual relationship between Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist in the American West from 1963 to 1983. The movie was a subject of controversies and criticism from conservative media outlets. Conversely, it has also been regarded as a stepping stone for the advancement of queer cinema into the mainstream.
The Matthew Shepard Story – Available on YouTube and Amazon Prime
A 2002 Canadian-American television film based on the true story of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay youth who was murdered in 1998. He was robbed, viciously beaten and left tied to a fence to die. Although he's found by the police, rescued and hospitalized, he dies from his injuries. This film recounts the events after the conviction of the two men responsible for this hate motivated murder. Matthew's parents, though satisfied by the conviction, find the sentencing phase of the trial more difficult. The parents initially want to request the death penalty for their son's murderers, but the mother, Judy Shepard, starts to reconsider. As they struggle with their decision, they decide to reexamine the life of their son and rediscover his personality, his struggle to accept his homosexuality as a natural part of his being and above all, his generous humanity to others. This leads the parents to appeal to the court the way their son would have wanted, not out of vengeance but to represent best of what their son was and the tragedy of his loss.
Erin Brockovitch – Available on YouTube, Vudu, Google Play, Amazon Prime, iTunes, and Hulu
A 2000 American biographical dramatization of the true story of Erin Brockovich, portrayed by Julia Roberts, who fought against the energy corporation Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E). Brockovich helped win the largest settlement ever paid in a direct-action lawsuit. She discovered a systematic cover-up of the industrial poisoning of the community of Hinkley's water supply, which threatens the health of the entire community. (Hinkley is an unincorporated town in the Mojave Desert, in San Bernardino County, California).
Boys Don’t Cry – Available on YouTube, Vudu, Google Play, Amazon Prime, iTunes, and Hulu
A 1999 American biographical dramatization of the real-life story of Brandon Teena, an American trans man played in the film by Hilary Swank, who attempts to find himself and love in Nebraska but falls victim to a brutal hate crime perpetrated by two male acquaintances.