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
Nora, Fashion and Beauty Editor
1971 (2015) // Netflix
This film is about a group of friends living outside Philadelphia who become fed up with FBI’s intimidation of anti-Vietnam War activists. The crew plans a caper, stealing thousands of files from their local FBI office and submitting them, pre-Watergate, to The Washington Post. If nothing else, watching lawmakers of the era actually work together to protect Americans is pretty shocking.
The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975 (2011) // Google Play, Amazon
The footage used in this documentary was shot in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and was lost for 30 years in the basement of Swedish Television! It features Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver, and various other luminaries discussing race, economics, incarceration, and power in mid-20th century America. Between the subjects’ knowledge and the extremely groovy footage, this film is thoroughly worth a rainy day watch party.
The Imposter (2012) // Netflix, Google Play
In 1994, Nicholas Barclay disappeared from San Antonio, Texas; three years later, a young man in Spain identified himself to authorities as the missing teen. I feel like I still don’t fully understand what’s going on in this documentary, but its extreme weirdness makes it worth watching. Bonus: this shirt.
KaeLyn, Staff Writer
We Were Here (2010) // Hulu, Netflix, iTunes, Amazon Video, YouTube, Google Play
The actual best documentary about the historical and more importantly, the community impact of the AIDS Epidemic, featuring survivors and advocates from the San Francisco AIDS Epidemic. I show this every year in my LGBT history class and it is the best I’ve seen to truly feel what AIDS was and meant if you were lucky enough to not live through it.
Kuma Hina: A Place in the Middle (2014) // Netflix, YouTube, Google Play
This documentary follows Kuma Hina, a Native Hawaiian community leader, kumu (teacher), and māhū (transgender woman) that explores the struggle between Pacific Islander culture and Western colonization in Hawaiʻi. Kuma Hina encourages a young girl to take the lead role in an all-male hula troup as she teaches and practices the cultural traditions of Hawaiʻi in an increasingly Westernized world. This movie is so real and beautiful, it will cut you delicately.
Before You Know It (2012) // iTunes, Amazon Video, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu
This film follows three gay seniors as they navigate community, self-identity, and love in our community that prioritizes youth and beauty. It’s a really beautiful documentary that’s surprisingly hopeful? It will definitely change how you feel about gay elders.
Pay It No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson (2012)
There’s a newer documentary about Marsha P. Johnson that is on the festival circuit and is coming to Netflix soon, but I haven’t watched that one yet. This 2012 doc is available free from the filmmaker on YouTube and it’s really heartfelt and lets Marsha speak for herself, including a ton of clips from a 1992 interview before her death. I love hearing her words directly from her mouth and it makes me heart hurt every time I watch it because she deserved so much more.
Priya, Staff Writer
The Keepers (2017) // Netflix
This 7-episode series follows the investigation into the 1969 murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik. A harrowing tale that soon weaves in scores of people beyond Cesnik, this documentary series struck me in the heart. It’s powerful, emotional, and, in my opinion, so incredibly We find out what Cesnik may have been up to in her last days, but unlike a true crime documentary, finding her killer turns out to be one of the least importa
Heather Hogan, Senior Editor
Dixie Chicks: Shut Up And Sing (2005) // Amazon
Yep, what Kayla and Erin said.
Hoop Dreams (1994) // Netflix
I watched Hoop Dreams when I was the a freshman on my high school basketball team. It was a profound experience. It’s the first time I ever felt like a piece of art was actually being honest with me. I love a happy ending. I love a good Disney movie, even. But it was life-changing in the most important ways to witness how the intersections of oppression conspire against minorities in America, especially young black kids, no matter how talented they are or how hard they work. I grew up in one of the most racist places in the country with everyone around me insisting racism was over. Hoop Dreams was the ruthless truth. It remains the truth.
13th (2016) // Netflix
Next: Rachel, Riese, Raquel & Carmen
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!