Autostraddle readers are always asking us to recommend documentaries because Autostraddle readers are smart cookies who want to keep getting smarter, and also to add something to their Netflix queue to watch between viewings of Carol. We’ve actually talked a lot about documentaries on this website, and now we’re going to talk about them even more! Here are our team’s favorite documentaries: the ones that have moved us, educated us, brought us to tears, and spurred us into action.
Kayla, Staff Writer
Speed Sisters (iTunes)
Speed Sisters looks at five women who have risen to prominence in the very male-dominated world of Palestinian street racing, and it rules! I was introduced to this documentary when I was an intern at Sundance, so I got to see it in some of its early stages. It’s an exciting story with compelling characters, and even the trailer gets me fired up.
Dixie Chicks: Shut Up And Sing (2007) // Amazon
Sorry, but this is the greatest documentary ever made, and if someone tells you otherwise, they’re wrong. I argue that you don’t even have to be a Dixie Chicks fan to be moved by it. But also, if you aren’t a Dixie Chicks fan, please don’t speak to me.
Street Fight (2005) // Amazon
This is one of the best political documentaries out there in my opinion. It chronicles Cory Booker’s 2002 mayoral campaign in Newark, and it is the reason I worked on campaigns throughout high school and college.
Erin, Staff Writer
Dixie Chicks: Shut Up And Sing (2007) // Amazon
I’m sorry that this is being posted a second time but Kayla is right, this is the best documentary. I saw this when it was debuting in theaters. Ayikes. And then when it came out on DVD I watched it over and over for the next several years, which is a normal thing to do and none of your business. I mean, yes, I am a Dixie Chicks fan, but mainly I love that you can tell these women love each other and would do anything for each other even though one of them fucked their careers into oblivion. Sometimes seeing women supporting women like that is exactly what you need one to three times a year.
Amy (2015) // Amazon
You go into this documentary about Amy Winehouse knowing that it’s going to ruin you. When the trailer was released for this, we were all like, “Yep, gonna ugly cry in public.” Still, worth it!
Alaina, Staff Writer
Waiting for Superman (2010) // Netflix, Amazon
This documentary tracks the way that public schools are failing Black and brown kids. I have mixed feelings about it, because while it does a really excellent job pointing out how our educational system really can’t support these kids, the solution it proposes is the charter school system, which on an ideological level, I’m totally against. I think I like it because every time I watch it, I’m reminded of why I want to teach and why I want to be a foster parent. Some of America’s most vulnerable citizens, who for the most part, aren’t even legally allowed to do things that could “better” their situation, have it the hardest out of anyone, and it makes me really sad. It’s a good reminder that we’ve got to be there for our communities, because honestly, no one else is.
Nursery University (2007) // Amazon
On the complete opposite side of the spectrum is Nursery University. I’m obsessed with weathly WASP New York City culture, and this is the epitome of it. Watching parents hire admissions advisors for their three year olds is bananas, but also I get it. It’s an utterly ridiculous look at privilege, but it’s a wild ride from start to finish.
Growing Up Wild (2016) // Netflix
I watch this when I need a break from the world and don’t want to think about anything but happy things. This documentary follows a bunch of wild baby animals while they grow up. It’s like the first half of The Lion King before everything goes terribly wrong. For a little over an hour, it makes me think that everything will be okay and the world is a good and pure place.
Laura M, Staff Writer
Making A Murderer (2015) // Netflix
You’ve probably already heard about this, right? Making A Murderer is set in the same county as A-Camp Wisconsin, and is an enthralling 10 episode documentary that covers Steven Avery’s (likely) wrongful conviction for murder. I remember thinking to myself at the end of each episode, “This is utterly bananas. What more could there possibly be to this story?!” And then there would be more. If you haven’t seen it yet, just watch it. There’s a reason it became a cultural phenomenon last winter, and that reason is that it’s excellent.
Park Avenue: Money, Power And The American Dream – Why Poverty? (2012) // YouTube
I watched this documentary when I was living in NYC, but I think it still holds up even if you’re not wandering Park Avenue regularly. This is about a particular building, 740 Park Ave, New York City, where some of the wealthiest people in the world live. Beyond that, it’s about how they use their money and resources to bend the American government to their will. Watch if you want to learn new facts to support your rightful anger and sadness about capitalism and the state of our democracy!
Pink Ribbons, Inc. (2011) // Gaia
This documentary is about those pink ribbons for breast cancer research, and how capitalism and research privatization fucks everything up! Because in spite of the billions of dollars of money raised, breast cancer rates have actually risen, and the only people benefitting from all this seem to be marketers.
Mey, Trans Editor
Paris is Burning (1990) // Netflix
I mean, come on, this is without a doubt the best documentary ever made. It’s ICONIC, it’s LEGENDARY, It’s Paris is Burning. I absolutely LOVE that there’s a place where I get to see the history of twoc like me, where I get to see us being celebrated and being happy and beautiful and full of life and style and power. If you’re a queer or trans person who hasn’t seen this documentary, please go and watch it right now. It’s a vital and vibrant history of the ballroom and drag scene in New York City and it features legends like Octavia St. Laurent, Dorian Corey and Angie Xtravaganza.
Grey Gardens (1975) // iTunes, Amazon Video, HBO
I hope with all my heart that I’m half as glamorous as Little Edie when I’m her age. I love this movie with zero percent irony or pity or laughing at the subjects. I look up to Big and Little Edie, they hold themselves with so much pride and self-love and I honestly think it’s very aspirational. Plus, I’m just super, super fascinated by American Royalty. Guys, if you want to watch a documentary that proves you can be proud and glamorous and hold your head high no matter what your circumstances are, Grey Gardens is for you.
Molly P, staff writer
Generation Iron (2013) // Netflix
This is a documentary about professional weightlifters and no joke I’ve seen it about four times. I love when people are just full-on obsessive about their hobbies/lifestyles/passions, and this one is a total dive into that world. Plus: lots of muscles.
Animism (2013) // Netflix
This is about people who fall deeply in love with objects. I found myself teary during most of it, because love really is just love, and who cares where people find it? Also, as someone who was raised in the Brave Little Toaster generation, items having feelings makes sense to me. It’s a really sweet look at some people who aren’t harming anyone else, and it’s respectful of the people and the objects. I liked it, and wish I could be all of their friends.
Next: Heather, Priya, Kaelyn and Nora
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I really need to rewatch the Celluloid Closet. I saw it in a film class in collage over a decade ago and thought it was really interesting(also remember it being mostly focused on cis-gay men). I wonder now that I am out how I would find it.
QUEEN OF VERSAILLES YES!!! thank you riese for reminding me of my other favorite documentary
The UP series is so amazing. My roommates and I watched it together in grad school, and we would anxiously await each netflix dvd with such anticipation. I had forgotten about Neil until just this moment reading this post, but I about had a full-blown come apart watching his story unfold. Neil broke me, but luckily put me back together again by the end.
I’m surprised that there were not that many lesbian documentaries here. Specially surprised by no one bringing up Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement
I really enjoyed Suited and The Strange History of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, I think both are HBO documentaries.
In addition to a bunch mentioned here, What Happened Miss Simone wrecked me. So does Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. The new one, Obit, on the obituaries section of NYT was also fantastic.
Yesssssss! What Happened Miss Simone is amazing.
another recent favorite it Tickled, that was bonkers
I think it’s on Amazon video in the US? If not, do yourself the favor and get the DVD.
It could have been an entirely different story, following Robert, a trans man dying from ovarian cancer in Georgia, but it’s not what you think. It’s warm and full of love and friendship and family and I still think about this movie, over ten years after having seen it at some festival.
Another one would be “Silver Girls” a German documentary about three prostitutes over 60 that I caught at a festival and it was just so beautiful and liberating, watching the women free themselves from societal expectation that I hunted down the DVD after it was finally released.
Oh man, I am still outraged at the cruel irony that he was denied a full hysterectomy (which I think he wanted initially as gender confirmation), then he died of ovarian cancer.
The Lion in Your Living Room for the Cat People-it’s all about CATS and how they came to be living with you. Did we domesticate them or did they choose to be domesticated? What’s up with feral cats? Find out by WATCHING THIS DOCUMENTARY!!!
The documentary about the creators of Wallace and Gromit is good: A Grand Night In: The Story of Aardman. I didn’t realize how big of a thing they were/are in Britain, so that was interesting. CHEESE, GROMIT!
“The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” is about this man who decides to take care of wild parrots living near his home in Telegraph Hill, San Francisco. It is really sweet and will probably make you cry. I’ve seen it a few times because my Mom loves birds.
If you want to learn/be horrified about Scientology, there’s “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.” I wasn’t at all interested in learning about this until my Mom wanted to watch it and then I was HOOKED! Scientology is AWFUL! Apparently the book the doc is based on is even better, and then there’s Leah Remini’s doc and book which I haven’t seen or watched but want to.
Has anyone seen Jesus Camp? Because as someone who was indoctrinated at a Christian camp from a very young age, that film left me WRECKED. It’s really, really good though.
Also Tickled by fellow Kiwi David Farrier is brilliant and weird and a total mindfuck. You can’t imagine where it’s going even in the midst of watching it.
Jesus Camp! That film was seriously disturbing but also super fascinating. I read somewhere that the camp has been closed for a while now and somewhere I saw an article that caught up with the kids now that most of them are adults and they’re pretty much as messed up/traumatized as you’d expect.
IMO it’s incredibly immoral to force any kind of belief onto a kid who hasn’t yet developed critical thinking skills, because yeah it does mess you up for ages, even after you leave.
Another fun fact is that one of the directors of Jesus Camp went to my Catholic high school. We weren’t there at the same time, but I’ve always appreciated the connection!
Jesus Camp was so well done. Considering it was about the topic it was, I thought it did an incredible job giving you “a look at the culture” of the religion vs. a biased view showing you “the horrors” of it all and allowed you the space to make opinions on it all for yourself (which obviously is that it’s terrifying). It was nominated for an Oscar I believe…and has a woman director and editor so yay for that!
Just had to come here to reiterate what Erin, Kayla and Heather all said about Shut Up And Sing. Best documentary of all time. I saw it for the first time ten years ago in my first year sociology class, and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since.
The other documentary I would highly recommend, which I found randomly on Netflix one day a few years ago is Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show, which I suspect many people here are going to be interested in. One caveat is that I wish they’d talk to more women, or queers, or POC, but I still found it really illuminating.
If, in these dark times, you want to see a doc that’s a little lighter (to get your mind off things for an hour), allow me to recommend Bruce Brown’s On Any Sunday. It’s about the world of motorcycles in the 1970s. It covers different racing events (street racing, enduro trials, dirt tracks, hill climbing, ice tracks, etc). It follows a handful of individual racers over the course of a year, so you get invested in their personal tragedies/victories (it has some good humor, too). Also, it’s got a lot of Steve McQueen.
I love documentaries so I always love to see ones recommended that I haven’t seen! One of my favorites, especially when I need something uplifting, is First Position, which is about young ballet dancers competing to gain spots on elite dance companies (I’m fascinated by talented young people and this one was a bonus because it didn’t also feature overbearing stage parents). I also second the recommendation for Pink Ribbons, Inc and there’s a book that the documentary was based on.
OMG thank you for this comprehensive list! This is all I will do every waking moment. Documentaries are my jammm. ps. I finally have a working computer for the first time in almost a year and I’m so excited because that means I will be better about commenting cause I hate typing on my phone!!
Amazing selections and thank you all for adding new material to my gigantic list.
I think one of the first documentaries I saw was La República Perdida (The Lost Republic). It’s a 2 part series, released in 1983 and 1986, about the history of my country, Argentina. The prime focus are the repeated Coups d’état we had, starting in 1930 and finalizing in 1983 (we had 6, because it seems we’re morons that like to repeat the same mistake over and over again hoping to get a different result). Still is one of my favorites and can’t help myself for watching it at least once a year.
Other of my favorite documentaries are “The Corporation” (Mark Achbar & Jennifer Abbott, 2003) and “Memoria del Saqueo” (Fernando “Pino” Solanas, 2004).
One that I considered essential viewing, although is very recent, is “Trapped” (Dawn Porter, 2016). I just need to add one thing to let you all know why is important: “Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt”.
If you have seen, and enjoyed, “We Were Here” or “United in Anger: a History of ACT UP” I cannot recommend the documentary “Small Town Rage: Fighting Back in the Deep South” highly enough. It is about the Shreveport, LA chapter of ACT UP and it’s so moving and so stunning.
Ooh, I’ll check this out!
It’s narrated by Lance Bass!
SUCH AMAZING SUGGESTIONS! The ones I have seen from the list are top-notch.
For The Bible Told Me So is excellent and supremely moving. I can also second Jesus Camp. And Going Clear (about Scientology) is really enlightening.
…it turns out I love documentaries about religion/cults!
ALSO Hot Girls Wanted – both the film and the subsequent series on Netflix (the incredible Rashida Jones is behind it) – is a fascinating look into pornography and various other topics related to 21st century sexuality.
British documentary presenters Reggie Yates and Stacey Dooley (individually) front some excellent stuff. I can particularly recommend Stacey’s Young Sex for Sale in Japan and Reggie’s Extreme Russia series.
so excellent! love love love these suggestions — in particular, Paris is Burning, 13th and Hoop Dreams.
Of my top-shelf documentary picks, I would also add The September Issue, I remember watching it and completely not understanding why everyone thinks Anna Wintour is terrible — I just felt that this was an excellent editor-in-chief in action, and I have an absolute decisiveness-crush on Anna Wintour.
Also, I absolutely fell in love with 20 Feet from Stardom, the documentary about back-up singers. *wistful sigh*
Personal favourite is Searching For Sugar Man. The story is incredible and the music is amazing.
Yes! It’s an incredible story – almost unbelievable.
One of my favourite documentaries is The Punk Singer, it’s on youtube. It’s about the lead singer for the pioneering riot grrrl band Bikini Kill, Kathleen Hanna, and her life. It’s so good.
I loved The Punk Singer so so much
I am excited to hunt down the documentaries I haven’t seen and revisit the ones that I have. One of my favorite docs is Jiro Dreams of Sushi, about a man’s legacy and also BEAUTIFUL sushi.
Going Clear – the documentary about scientology and it’s history. If you’re into anything about cults or religions this is a must see. I was legitimately on the edge of my seat the whole time just in awe with every piece of information brought to the table.
OMG I have so many opinions on this topic!!
Let the Fire Burn – The story about how in 1985 the Philadelphia Police bombed a building occupied by the members of MOVE a black liberation organization. It uses news footage, MOVE promotional videos, and footage of the commission that followed.
If a Tree Falls – Follows a member of Environmental Liberation Front in the months leading up to a trail for arson and terrorism in relation to several fires set by the group as a form of environmental activism in the Pacific Northwest.
Planet Earth – All the amazing animals and landscapes you could ever hope for.
How to survive a plague / finding vivian maier
BUT ALSO, “Helvetica” is a great documentary about everyone’s fav ubiquitous sans-serif that I tried and failed to trick three different friends into watching with me –
“do u like documentaries?”
“ok cool this one looks sweet let’s press play faster than u can read the title”
“… Mick is this a movie about a font”
– before accepting my fate & watching it alone
AND I’D WATCH IT AGAIN
Has anyone seen Child of Our Time? It follows children born in January 2000, and at first conce trated on childhood development, but is really interesting to see the impact of that social changes in childhood have on children, imo. Probably influenced by the UP series.
Also the docu that jumped to mind was Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. I remember watching it when it first aired, and it was the firdt time I had seen mental illness talked about so frankly and without judgement on TV. I’ve watched it every couple of years since, and they did a 10 years later episode last year.
I have cried through We Were Here several times. It is a powerful look at how a community was devastated. One of the few things that makes me cry juzt thinking about it is the AIDS quilt. This documentary made it even more poignant.
On the “charming / uplifting” front:
Did you watch Christopher Guest’s Best in Show and love it? Then you should watch “Chicken People,” about the world of competitive chicken breeders. The people are so sweet and lovely, their chickens are adorable, and their stories are a delight. I watched it on a flight back from Brazil and fell head over heels for it.
I feel compelled to point out that Steven Avery (from Making a Murderer) is from Manitowoc County (also where the alleged murder took place) and A-Camp Wisconsin is in Waukesha/Walworth County. #geography