Raquel, Staff Writer
Helvetica (2007) // Amazon Video / iTunes / Youtube
I know I’m going to be that girl, but y’all, I love this documentary. More and more people are becoming versed in fonts/typography, and I think this documentary does a great job of letting us look in and see the weird world of conceptual movements in capital-D Design. I’m fascinated by the tensions between modernist and postmodernist thinking, the devolution of idealist modernism into an undemocratic high-consumer style and the ensuing anti-corporate backlash, and how even the look of the words you’re reading can deeply affect how you feel about what you’re reading. It’s a great one to have up in the background, so you can randomly pick up information but not necessarily die of boredom if you aren’t a huge nerd.
I Am Not Your Negro (2016) // Amazon Video / iTunes / Youtube / Google Play
This documentary is effectively a postmortem collaboration between director Raoul Peck and James Baldwin. It’s entirely constructed of Baldwin’s words, mostly from his last, unpublished novel “Remember This House,” a personal account of the lives and assassinations of three of his close friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. The film is interspersed with some of his other speeches and writings and is so, so powerful. The format is beautifully done, and feels like it could have been written yesterday. I immediately wanted to go back and read everything he has ever written.
The Cruise (1998) // Amazon Video /Vudu
I first watched this in a class my first year of art school. The professor wanted us to start learning “how to see”—that is, how to be an active, participatory observer of the world around us. This documentary is a perfect example of this. A very strange, beautiful man, working as a tour guide in new York, takes us around his city and waxes lyrics about the buildings he sees and the nature of living. It’s sweet and lovely and unpretentious, unlike how it sounds.
Room 237 (2013) // Amazon Video / iTunes / Youtube / Google Play
This documentary is WILD, put together around tons of different weirdos and their conspiracy theories about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. I first saw it after a screening of the Shining and was riveted until late into the night. My favorite theory is by the woman who makes intricate maps of the architecture of the hotel, and how the ways it doesn’t make sense add to the sense of the uncanny in the movie. It’s a mind-bender, but some of them are also very silly (see: the woman who found minotaurs everywhere). Watch it, and tell me which is your fave.
Carmen, Staff Writer
4 Little Girls (1997) // Amazon Video
The first time I saw 4 Little Girls, I was 11 years old. Some people would probably say that’s too young to watch a documentary about white supremacist violence during the civil rights movement and the 1963 bombing of Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church. My parents felt differently; after all, I was the same age as Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carole Denise when the bomb took their lives. If they were forced to live that unspeakable terrorism, then surely I could bare witness from the safety of the couch in my home. I’ve never thanked my parents for that decision, but I probably should. With our proximity in age, seeing Addie May, Cynthia, Carole Robertson, and Carole Denise taught me that even as a child nothing was to be taken for granted. That to get up every morning and be a black girl in this country was an act of bravery. Most importantly, it taught me that as a black community, we keep going further. We don’t give up. My black girlhood was and is valuable- because their black girlhood was stolen from them. Those are lessons I still carry with me.
I Am Not Your Negro (2016) // Amazon
I know Raquel already mentioned I Am Not Your Negro. What can I say? The Autostraddle Team has good taste. On that note, I also second Heather’s recommendation of The 13th and Nora’s recommendation of Black Power Mixtape. Both were on my short list. You guys, I love James Baldwin. I love love love love James Baldwin. In my Autostraddle bio it says that I slept with a copy of his Fire Next Time under my pillow for years, and I mean that sincerely. His essays are the reason I wanted to be a writer. I adore I Am Not Your Negro because it’s not a biography of James Baldwin; it uses his prose to narrate a meditation on the epidemic of racism in America. His words, interpreted by Samuel L. Jackson, caption both turn of the 20th century blackface cartoons and videos of Black Lives Matter rallies. They detail intimate reflections of the night that Martin Luther King died. They illustrate parallels between the mid-century and the dawning of Trump’s America. If you’re interested in studying white supremacy and plotting resistance, this documentary is the first place I would direct you to.
Dior and I (2014) // Netflix
This documentary feels more like an episode of Project Runway, if the designers had one of the most storied fashion houses in the world supporting them. I was a kid who loved dresses, the frillier the better; the kind of teenager who kept stacks of fashion magazines on my bed. Still, I was an adult before I really appreciated the marriage of art and engineering that goes into fashion designing. Dior and I offers a thorough, and fascinating, look into that process as Raf Simons (formerly head designer at Dior, now with Calvin Klein) navigates the potential perils of his first couture collection. It’s the kind of movie that would make a great weekend morning watch, as long as you don’t mind if your mouth hangs agape over your pancakes while Simons’ designs strut down the runway.
This is hard because I like so many and will watch pretty much any documentary n the past, I’ve made you lists of documentaries about crime and about economic injustice and about art & artists and about the gays SO where do I even begin right here right now to talk about my favorites of all time!
Grey Gardens (1975) // iTunes, Amazon Video, HBO)
Little Edie’s American flag dance is an integral element of my personal brand. It is difficult to be close with people who haven’t seen Grey Gardens yet.
Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices(2005) // Hulu)
If you live in America it’s important to know who is really running things. For example: Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is running things and they suck at it.
Roger & Me (Amazon) // 1989
I was 12 or something when I first saw this and it changed my understanding of the world forever and what could be accomplished by investigative journalism that challenges dominate narratives. I live near Flint and didn’t really fully grasp what had happened there and what was happening all around me in Michigan until I saw this.
Paradise Lost (1996) // YouTube, HBO
I was 16 or so, I think, when my best friend and I found this documentary airing on HBO late at night, and quickly became obsessed with the case — it turns out I wasn’t alone, as the first film led to the construction of a trilogy, and changed the course of the case and the fates of the wrongfully accused humans at its center.
Gideon’s Army (2013) // Netflix & Amazon
The story of the public defenders working long hours for low pay to get actual justice for people who can’t afford their own representation. Another eye-opener.
The Central Park Five (2012) // Amazon
Can you tell I have a lot of feelings about people who are incarcerated for crimes they did not commit!
The Celluloid Closet (1996) // Amazon
My introduction to the wonderful world of how gays and lesbians are misrepresented in mainstream film and how our stories have been censored and re-written to make us look bad.
This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006) // Netflix
Another bit of required reading for feminist media critics — there is a group of conservative humans in charge of approving ratings for films and they do not like it when women have orgasms onscreen. They prefer murder, really.
High School (1968) // Vimeo
This is one of the earliest examples of an “observational documentary,” and I saw it at an indie theater in New York in 1999 and I remember going to Cafe Mozart afterwards and quoting it, something some kid had said about accepting their detention under protest that I’ve yet to get out of my head. The New York Times wrote of it, “As an expression of existential exhaustion and despair, the landscape of High School is as eloquent as any dreamed up by Camus or Satre.”
The UP Series (1964 ->)
This series, which I was turned onto while on a trip to Australia during which we saw 42 UP in the theaters, followed the lives of 14 British children starting in 1964, when they were 7. The filmmaker returns to his group every seven years to make a new film, so this is pretty cool stuff, watching somebody’s entire damn life happen (or not). The trailer up there is for the 2012 edition, 56 UP. But you have to start from the start.
The Queen of Versailles (2012) // Amazon
There’s something about this woman — who wants to build this insane mansion for literally no reason besides that she can afford it — that just fascinated me. But disclaimer I also was one of three fans of the classic reality TV program The Anna Nicole Show. So don’t trust me!
Rachel, Managing Editor
The Price of the Ticket (1989) // California Newsreel
I almost hate to recommend this because it’s difficult to find; it isn’t streaming anywhere that I’m aware of and I have LOOKED, you basically have to buy the DVD but I promise it’s worth it! This is a really beautiful and compelling documentary on the life and work of James Baldwin and has a lot of really amazing people, like Toni Morrison and Amiri Baraka, sharing commentary on him which is like another layer of getting to see something great. The footage of his funeral always makes me really emotional. I Am Not Your Negro, already recommended widely in this post by others, is also incredible and much easier to find!
Pina (2011) // Amazon Video
I don’t know anything about dance or really follow it at all; I have no idea why this documentary fucking wrecked me but it did. I texted my mom about it after to tell her she needed to watch it and she already had and was like I KNOW RIGHT. I watched it alone in someone else’s apartment with all the lights turned off and wine and a frozen pizza and I feel like that was a good way to do it.
Okay, your turn!