For all of Netflix’s undeniable glory, the pure vastness of its content can sometimes mean heading straight for the tried and tested bingeworthy shows that can easily take up an entire day/month of your life. Couple this with the recommendation feature Netflix doles out as soon as you finish a programme, and the less discerning user (me) may end up flitting from Gossip Girl to RuPaul’s Drag Race back to Gossip Girl for an embarrassing length of time.
However, beyond Netflix’s capacity to suck us into a blissful day of teen drama and beautiful drag queens, it also has an incredibly impressive array of documentaries in its archives, from iconic, award winning features to small budget, indie docs. Here’s our list of some of the most interesting documentaries available to stream at the moment, if you dare to disobey the formidable Netflix suggestions list.
The House I Live In analyses “America’s longest war” – the war on drugs. This phrase has been at the forefront of political agendas and police operations for decades, with tough sentencing and zero tolerance policies proposing to lead to a drug free America. Why then, have the levels of incarceration continued to rise? And why are the rates of addiction and poverty surrounding these policies often ignored? The House I Live In has some theories.
The documentary takes a bold and provocative stance in addressing why this war has been so blatantly ineffective, with an approach that gives an equal voice to all parties involved in this war– from street dealers and inmates to federal judges and politicians. Whilst their opinions differ on a lot of the topics regarding control and sentencing, what binds these conflicting voices together is the common opinion that this war on drugs might not about drugs at all.
With help from The Wire’s David Simon, The House I Live In highlights the inherent problems with bluntly criminalising an issue that is so tied up in class, race and poverty, in a way that ultimately serves only to benefit those at the top.
In 2006, Director Carol Morley read a brief newspaper article detailing the death of Joyce Carol Vincent, whose body had gone unnoticed and unaccounted for for three years. In a flat on a busy council estate, Vincent’s decomposed body was found surrounded by Christmas presents she had been wrapping, with the TV left on. The level of mystery surrounding this woman’s heartbreakingly lonely end pushed Morley to seek out those who were had played a part in Vincent’s life, and in doing so she created drama-doc Dreams Of A Life.
Using a combination of interviews and dramatised scenes featuring Zawe Ashton, Morley builds a thoughtful portrait of Vincent through her friends’ words, piecing together stories and anecdotes that show an interesting, vibrant and often conflicted woman. Contradictory opinions of Vincent are scattered throughout the documentary, with some interviewees declaring her talented and passionate, others believing she was often apathetic and unmotivated. The documentary sends you on an investigation of who this woman was, yet it often seems no one really knew – instead she became defined by what people thought she was.
From Ultra Culture’s Charlie Lyne comes Beyond Clueless, an essay film that delves into the 90s to early noughties phenomenon of the teen movie. With an almost dizzying mass of source material, Lyne carefully dissects the most popular tropes played out on screen, seamlessly flowing through sexual awakenings, pressures to conform and adolescent angst in a way that feels like a whimsical hormonal mirage.
Parts of this documentary can sometimes feel more like a loose, disconnected tribute to iconic teen movies, however the chapters that divide the film (including ‘Fitting In’, ‘Acting Out’ and ‘Moving On’) bind said films together in a way that offers a smart analysis on what aspects of teen movies are focused on (see: conformity at all costs) and why. And if none of that grabs you, teen genre icon Fairuza Balk narrates the entire thing with a delivery that is equal parts ethereal and creepy.
Food Inc. takes aim at the entire food industry in an exposé that uncovers the systematic flaws in every stage of the business, from the way we farm meat to the way we produce corn and vegetables. It’s a disturbing and often uncomfortable watch, with no holds barred as clips of animal abuse and corruption on every level are played out alongside statistics that will probably put you off your lunch.
Beyond the animal and agricultural issues Food Inc. investigates, one of the most interesting facets of the documentary is its exploration of the human cost of this industry, both on a physical and economic level. From labour unions risking imprisonment for speaking out against corporations, to the rapid rise in early onset diabetes across America, the food industry is shown not just to harm animals and the environment, but to systematically oppress the consumer on every level.
Food Inc. might not change your habits, but will almost certainly change your perspective. It might also make you feel irrationally angry about corn.
What Happened, Miss Simone? is a documentary charting the life and work of Nina Simone, with a particular focus on her passionate and unyielding activism, and what this ultimately meant for her career.
Simone, it seems, never had dreams of becoming the woman she was, and indeed she never planned on becoming a jazz singer at all. Throughout the documentary we hear from archival footage that Simone had dreams of being the first black female concert pianist to play at Carnegie Hall, that her mother deemed Jazz ‘the devil’s music’ and that she really only started singing jazz out of sheer necessity for cash. But whatever her intentions, her quick rise to the top of the music scene offered her a part to play in politics, and she used this position to further the civil rights movement. This turning point is where What Happened, Miss Simone? really comes to life, with her sheer power and passion giving her a strong platform to further the cause, but at the price of pushing away mainstream radio and support.
Parts of this documentary are hard to swallow to say the least, and frankly I think it could have been made without her ex-husband’s soundbites at all – why should someone who had a direct and abusive hand in her breakdown be allowed to unashamedly justify his reasoning? But for its flaws, it’s still a worthy effort to capture the complex genius of Simone, and one which truly does justice to the unending passion she felt for the civil rights movement, and the cost she paid for living through the hate and oppression.
Rubble Kings is a documentary that examines the street gangs that ruled New York City from 1968 – 1975, run by disillusioned young men and women looking for a way to rail against the system they felt had let them down.
Using a mix of archival footage and exclusive interviews with former gang members, Rubble Kings gives a first hand look at the practices and hierarchy of gang culture, which were impressively organised and powerful throughout the city. Dividing lines cut across New York for each gang’s turf, with distinctive jackets, rituals and practices setting each one apart as they controlled their area. For all their variances though, Rubble Kings makes one thing clear – they all seemed to want something more than simple gang warfare.
One of the primary gangs focused on in this documentary is The Ghetto Brothers, a gang in the South Bronx led by Benjamin Melendez and Carlos Suarez. The Ghetto Brothers had hopes of using their gang to promote community activism and social change, a theme that runs throughout the documentary as gang members explain the need for action in a city that cast them aside is what drove them to gangs in the first place. Throughout the documentary we see The Ghetto Brothers try and change the culture they had helped create, with Rubble Kings charting the way these gangs came to form more than a group of angry disconnected youths, but a vehicle for true social change.
Definitely one of the most iconic documentaries available on Netflix right now, Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine sought to understand the meaning behind the Columbine massacre, and what it reflected about the larger issues of gun control and violence in America. Columbine serves as a kind of jumping point for Moore, who sees this event not as a singular tragedy but as a symptom of a far wider problem that surrounds America, where bullets can be bought from KMart and rifles from the bank.
Bowling For Columbine theorises that Americans are trapped in a culture of fear, romanticising gun laws and the right to bear arms in order to let themselves believe that guns are the solution, when in reality these self-defeating laws are a pretty big part of the problem. It also questions why other countries with similar gun ownership laws have far fewer gun crimes than America, exploring what it could be about America’s attitude towards violence and weaponry that has led them here.
With the recent mass shooting in Oregon and the alarmingly familiar gun control uproar that quickly surrounded it, Bowling For Columbine has become all too poignant and essential yet again, and promises to be an even bleaker viewing experience today.
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