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It's difficult to know where to start with a good social justice documentary, especially if you're new to watching them. Which ones are reliable? Intersectional? Unbiased?
No documentary will ever be a perfect or unbiased account of an event or someone's life, but my go to documentaries generally consist of films that are directed by those who have some sort of connection to the event, that is more so than just passionate interest. Films about PoC issues are best made by people of color, LGBTQIAP+ issues are best made by those within the LGBTQIAP+ community, and so on. This authenticity will not only make the viewing more in depth and enjoyable, but will also help these underrepresented film makers achieve their goals as film makers.
But what documentaries should you start with if you're more of a fiction lover? Well I've come up with a nice bag'o films that are very educational, thought provoking, and kind of heart breaking.
And the options are...
1. Dark Girls
Dark Girls is an inspirational documentary that highlights the issue of colorism within the African American community, caused by the global racism of white society. Not only does the film look into the damaged self esteem of dark skinned women and girls across the country, but it also tackles the issue of cultural appropriation within white society: "White women are risking skin cancer and tanning booths twice a week, Botox-ing their lips, getting butt lifts to look more ethnic and crinkling up their hair." the films creator Bill Duke states, going on to discuss how dark skinned women are shamed into changing their appearance to look more Caucasian. The film also features interviews from several men of color who state that they don't date dark skinned girls, showing how deeply this internalized racism flows. This is what white society, what we, have done to generations upon generations of dark skinned girls, and as the film suggests; if we don't stop reinforcing that light is better, countless more young girls will grow up hating themselves just as hard as society does.
2. What Happened, Miss Simone?
You'd have to travel pretty darn far to find someone who hasn't heard of Nina Simone, her staple jazz and blues tracks are everywhere in popular culture, from featuring in famous movies, to even playing in product commercials. The documentary explores the life and work of Simone; from her early classical beginnings and how she was denied entry to Julliard based on race, her activity in the civil rights movement, her new found fame in the jazz biz, her abusive m
Despite being all natural, and y'know, something we've been doing since humans first started to walk this earth, there is still a taboo on breastfeeding, in public and even in private. The reason for this taboo mainly stems from the over-sexualisation of the breast (it may be a "secondary sexual characteristic" according to science, but so is an adam's apple, but no one tells someone to cover up their neck do they?) For cis men, there is no taboo for whipping out a titty, but as soon as a mother decides that her child needs their lunch? All hell breaks loose. Breastmilk is a documentary that understands this double standard, and seeks to banish the myth that formula is somehow more appropriate for infants. Not only is the film full of light-hearted stories and imagery from doting parents, but it also unapologetically shows the breast for what it is; we see milk seeping from the nipple, running down the side of suction pumps, and for not one moment is the act seen as obscene, sexual, or 'something to be done only in private.' If you are considering becoming a parent, or if you're already expecting and are looking into the pros and cons of breast milking, then this is likely the documentary for you.
4. Let The Fire Burn
MOVE were, and still are, a black liberation group based in Philadelphia, fighting against police brutality, racism, and anti-naturalism. Though the police and society in general saw them as a terrorist group, MOVE mostly spent their days rallying against animal cruelty, home schooling their children, and tried to teach the world about anti-capatalist pleasures in life. After several altercations between the police and the group, and one particularly nasty event at a zoo protest were a pregnant activist was beaten, and an infant was crushed to death by a policeman, war had officially broken out between MOVE and the police force. Let The Fire Burn is the story of the day this war reached it's peak. After the police force raided the communal house of MOVE, 9 members of the group were charged with the murder of one of the police officers. The butterfly effect continued as the group protested these arrests with loud speakers from their home; causing the police to raid once more, but this time tear gas was used to flood everyone out of the building. When this didn't work, they used water guns, bullets, then finally C4. The explosion that proceeded caused 60 homes to burn, leaving over 250 people homeless, and killing 5 children and 6 adults. Needless to say the title of this film is a quote, so if you haven't seen the film then just take a wild guess as to who said it. This horrific event is a reminder that hate will always breed vengeance, and if the authorities refuse to put down their weaponry, then the whole world will one day burn, and blood will be on their hands alone.
Girlhood tells the story of 2 troubled foster care girls in Maryland, Megan Jensen and Shanae Owens; two teenagers who had their youth stolen from them by abuse, rape, and an unjust foster system. For Megan, her childhood mostly consisted of waiting for her mother to come home from her own tough life on the streets, and her time was spent shared between 11 foster homes, two psychiatric hospitals, and then juvenile hall after she attacked another girl with a box cutter. Shanae's life wasn't any easier, as between the ages of ten and twelve she had had become addicted to booze and drugs, been gang raped, and had stabbed another girl to death.
The film depicts three years in the life of both girls; the trials, the mistakes, the pain, and the desperate attempt to fix all that was broken. Seeing through the eyes of kids that society automatically labels as "delinquents" even before they submit to a life of crime, gives us the ability to see why these teens fall into the traps of drugs and crime, and it asks the question; can we help fix the problem before it starts? The movie also questions the idea of the nuclear family being an integral part of healthy childhood development, of nature versus nurture, and whether the system has the right resources to help teens like this.
6. Paris is Burning
Paris is Burning is set, funnily enough, in New York City during the mid-80s, and depicts Ball culture, that many people of color, people in the LGBTQIAP+ community took part in. These communities were and still are ostracized from the arts due to racism, homophobia, transphobia, and classism, so this film was pretty revolutionary in depicting drag culture. Issues such as poverty, sexuality, sex work, gender, and the AIDS epidemic are also highlighted in the feature, showing the darkest sides to 80s NYC. Several interviews are shown in the film from contestants taking part in the drag contests, wishing to Vogue their way to stardom and happiness.
Filmmaker Jennie Livingston stated that the film is about how we are forced to commercialize ourselves to seek enlightenment; "It's about how we're all influenced by the media;" she told Orlando Sentine "how we strive to meet the demands of the media by trying to look like Vogue models or by owning a big car. And it's about survival. It's about people who have a lot of prejudices against them and who have learned to survive with wit, dignity and energy. It's a little story about how we all survive."
7. After Tiller
Abortion has always been one of the most polarizing debates in human rights history, and one of the most violent ones, to the point were abortion doctors are actually getting killed over their alignment in the debate. After Tiller follows the aftermath of the murder of Dr George Tiller back in 2009, who was shot by an anti-abortion activist, from a group who also firebombed Tiller's clinic. These events not only put a dent in the clinic's appointments, but it also started an even more violent rage on both sides of the abortion debate.
Doctors were now looking over their shoulder wherever they went, and going to work felt like walking through shark infested waters. The film follows the lives of the only four doctors in the U.S who perform late-term abortions, and the countless pregnant patients who are seeking their help. Something that is so sickening about anti-choice activism is that the one sentient life in the entire situation, the pregnant party, is the one losing their life; whether it's the woman who dies in childbirth after being denied an emergancy abortion, the boy who has to give up his education to take care of the child he cannot afford, or the 11 year old rape survivor who is being forced to deal with someone else's consequence, those lives become ruined, this is not pro-life, it's anti-life.
This 30 For 30 documentary focuses on the life and death of Ben Wilson, who was considered to be the best high school basketball player of his time. It's 1984, a single day before Wilson's senior basketball season was set to start; he has high hopes for himself, everyone does, but those hopes would soon be taken from him by two bullets. He was shot by Billy Moore, a seventeen year old from a neighboring high school who was rumored to be involved in gang activity. What prompted the killer to target Wilson is debated, during the documentary Moore — who is interviewed by the director in the film — insists that the murder had nothing to do with gangs, and everything to do with Wilson "antagonizing" him into the attack, but can we really trust a killer's word?
The film gives an interesting insight into a gang divided city mourns for its lost souls, and many of those who knew 'Benji' best give their thoughts and feelings on the tragedy, from fellow sportsmen to childhood friends of Wilson's such as R. Kelly and Common. What we have to keep in mind when watching a documentary like this is the fact that events like these are not rare, especially considering black American men are murdered at Killed At 12 times the rate of any other race in developed countries.
9. Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom
Winter on Fire depicts the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine between 2013-2014, and the events that led to the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych, who fed his country false promises of joining the EU, only to back out at the last minute and ally with Russia. Considering the Ukraine's dark history with Russia, needless to say people were ready and willing to riot. Over 2,000 people, consisting of students, clergy and others, gathered for various peaceful protests across the country, but one protest in particular occurred on the 20th January 2014. Berkut officers in riot gear lashed out against the protesters mercilessly, with real ammunition, and medical tents were even turned upside down.
By the end of the massacre, 125 people were killed, 1,890 were injured, and 65 people were missing. The film depicts the horrors of this event, and the mess of political changes that occurred after wards. There are tons of documentaries that discuss war and battles that have been fought, but to see something as visually detailed as this really hits hard; viewers are shown the destruction, the death, the hope, and the tears. Yet again we are reminded, by watching films like these, that freedom can be many things, not free it is not.
10. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer
Of course this list is gonna include one of the most famous feminist punk bands of all time, but the film in question isn't just about feminism. Pussy Riot are a Russian punk band who have been protesting Putin and other elements of the corrupt Russian government from the moment they hit the airwaves. The documentary follows the band through the court cases and trials that were the result of the various protest the band were involved in, as well as the riots that followed. For Pussy Riot, these protests were walking music videos, and the music video that really set off the Anti-Pussy-Riot witch hunt was Punk Prayer - Mother of God/Virgin Mary Chase Putin Away! which essentially highlights what this documentary is all about.
It's no secret that various elements of organized religion are bigoted as hell, but something that the band could not stand about the relationship between church and state in Russia was the Orthodox Church's support of their favorite leader, Putin. Protests like these led to the eventual arrests of several members of the band, and during their exhausting trials and court hearings, punks and feminists of the world united to protest their unfair incarceration, thus giving birth to documentaries like this. The world wanted to free Pussy Riot, and if you watch the documentary then you'll find out if that wish was granted.