Documentaries don’t seem like they’re going to be a good time. The word itself conjures up stuffy, fact-packed (to the point of superfluousness) academic films — but that couldn’t be further from the actual documentary landscape, which is more vibrant, entertaining and diverse in topics than ever before.
Case in point: The past few years have yielded some amazing documentaries centered on women from all different backgrounds and epochs. Ranging from the legacy and impact of Title IX to unflinching biopics to critical examinations of feminist progress (sometimes all at once), these documentaries showcase women in power, women in struggle, and women in dissent — they’re bold film portraits that’ll sate both cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike. Let’s get to it:
The Punk Singer
“That girl thinks she’s the queen of the neighborhood” — the opening snarl of Bikini Kill’s iconic “Rebel Girl,” as well as other riot grrrl anthems like “Feels Blind,” “Double Dare Ya,” and Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic,” crashed punk rock’s dude-centric party and established frontwoman Kathleen Hanna as a feminist icon. But it’s what Hanna’s done with and outside of her music that makes her exceptional, and makes The Punk Singer (a crowd-funded effort) riveting. She’s fearlessly spoken out about sexual assault and abortion rights and signal-boosted other activist causes, all while preaching her show mantra turned political position: Girls to the front.
What Happened Miss Simone
One of the most remarkable things about this original Netflix documentary is that it took so long for anyone to dive deeply and thoughtfully into the late singer’s tumultuous story. With a voice that transcended generations but was virtually silenced in her later years, Simone suffered under the harsh spotlight of fame; What Happened, Miss Simone? takes an unflinchingly straight look at a woman who, in both life and legacy, was misunderstood.
Gender inequality in Hollywood is now under federal investigation, but back in 2011, Miss Representation was one of the only fully-formed critiques on mainstream media’s non-neutral portrayals of women. With conversation contributors like Dolores Huerte, Nancy Pelosi, and Cory Booker, the film wasn’t so much about specific women as it was a critical overview of how media influences girlhood and womanhood — and how to wield its influence for the better.
The Invisible War
In this harrowing, Oscar-nominated documentary, filmmakers spotlight the devastating effects of the military’s reporting process on survivors of sexual harassment and assault from within the ranks. The result: A frightening and frustrating view into a culture of patriarchal reinforcement and both subtle and unsubtle victim-blaming. It’s more than enough that the people who serve in the armed forces put their lives on the line for those back home; The Invisible War shows that too many servicepeople have to fight an additional war, one played on terms that are inherently unjust and stacked against those who would speak out.
He Named Me Malala
Malala Yousafzai has done more in 18 years than most people accomplish in a lifetime. After surviving a Taliban attack on her life, the Pakistani activist has continued to work for universal female education, eventually winning a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts. Yousafzai’s story isn’t just relegated to what happened after her injury though — He Named Me Malala provides a closer look at her story of girlhood interrupted, and the mission she’d made her life’s work even before her life was threatened for it.
As the future of abortion rights in the United States becomes more and more uncertain, thanks to efforts to ignore wider discussions about reproductive health and bodily autonomy, the question becomes: In the face of violent vitriol disguised as moral concern, who would put their life on the line for those rights? After Tiller examines the only doctors willing to provide late-term abortions (the film’s named after Dr. George Tiller, who was murdered for that exact reason), and sheds a light on the actual reasons and circumstances that push people to seek those procedures, and compels those doctors to perform them.
Alice Walker: Beauty In Truth
The Color Purple is one of the past century’s most important pieces of art, not just for the empires it helped launch (namely, early-era Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg), but for its clear-eyed takes on social injustice and unvarnished depictions of race and sex-based violence. (The latter made it a target for book censors.) Beauty in Truth is a dutiful biography of Purple author Alice Walker, but also serves as an examination of her work and the legacy that’s still evolving from it.
On paper, the tale of two aging eccentrics, living just outside the rarefied fringe of celebrity, is a topic rife for comedy and/or malicious intent. But Grey Gardens is pointedly not that; instead, this landmark documentary about the two Edith Beales (one the aunt, the other the first cousin to Jackie O) is warm in its weirdness, and ultimately celebrates and supports its quirky protagonists. (The film also inspired an amazing Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore-starring HBO miniseries.)
Pay it No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson
When the film Stonewall came out this year, there was a lot of criticism about the race dynamics of the cast — namely, the literal invention of a white cis male protagonist depicted as instigating the Stonewall Inn riots. The indignity is even more pronounced because of the acknowledged history and legacy of Marsha P. Johnson, the black trans woman who is largely credited by those at the event to have thrown the first brick at Stonewall. Learn about one of the foremothers of queer, trans activism in the candid, critical Pay It No Mind, named after one of Johnson’s most famous expressions.
What were you doing when you were 14-years-old? Speaking for myself, I was trying to learn algebra and not make a fool of myself around crushes. Laura Dekker chose a significantly more daunting endeavor: To become the youngest person to sail around the world. Maidentrip is as beautiful as it is brutal, and Dekker’s journey is never made to look easier in the edits — but it’s a dazzling subject, inspirational and totally terrifying and every feeling in between.
When people think of colorism, it’s often thought of as a phenomenon between races. Not so: Even within POC communities, internalized racism trickles down generations. Dark Girls explores the light-skinned vs. dark-skinned dichotomy within the black community, from an updated version of the Barbie doll tests to testimony from black public figure like Viola Davis. Touching upon cultural appropriation, cultural exchange, and sexism within race-based communities, Dark Girls is a vital insight into the complicated intersections between race, beauty, and identity.
The Hunting Ground
Before the past few years, conversations about sexual assault and rape on college campuses oftentimes ended up framing survivors as a strident fringe population, and focused instead on straw man arguments about fake rape accusations, unpredictable human nature, and alcohol abuse. Activists Andrea Pino and Annie E. Clark changed this — their deployment of Title IX against the University of North Carolina sparked a nationwide conversation about consent, victim-blaming, and survivor solidarity in a cultural climate that oftentimes still ignores or sneers at women who dare speak up against institutionalized gender inequality and violence. The Hunting Ground deftly chronicles their stories, but also tracks the statistics (reported and unreported) about sexual assault and rape as wholes, and the visibility of sexual violence discourse within the U.S. higher education system.
ESPN’s Nine for IX
ESPN is not necessarily the first place you’d think of as being a feminist sports haven (considering the remarks of many of their male anchors), but their Nine for IX series, hosted through espnW, is a remarkable feat of filmmaking. Bringing together fantastic female producers and directors (including Ava DuVernay and Robin Roberts), the films focus on the legacy of Title IX as regards to the sports world, profiling individual legends like Venus Williams, Sheryl Swoopes, and the 1999 U.S. Women’s World Cup soccer team and exploring off-field issues like women in sports locker rooms, men’s team coaching, and sex appeal in the world of commercial sponsorships.
Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures?
While Finding Vivian Maier, the crowdfunded, Oscar-nominated documentary about the mysterious nanny/photographer, had more buzz, this BBC documentary served less as a showcase for self-appointed Maier champion John Maloof (who now holds the rights for over 90 percent of Maier’s collection) and more of an honest exploration of her work and foundational life experiences. Famous only after her death, Maier’s story is one of artistic licensing, legacy, and vision, all captured in snapshots she hadn’t meant to be seen by the world.
She broke records and stunned listeners with that smoky growl of a voice, but it was only when Amy Winehouse passed away that the luminous highs and darkest lows of her life were finally treated with the respect she truly deserved. Winehouse was a bolt of lightning in the music world, and Amy tackles the many problems she both brought with her into it and that it forced onto her. Though there’s even more to her story than the film presents, Amy is a necessary conversation-starter about the exaggerating effects of fame.
The original Freeheld documentary, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject back in 2007, is a portrait of a very different world, though it only follows events from less than a decade before. Laurel Hester and her partner Stacie Andree fought to be recognized as a legitimate union; their struggle eventually helped usher in domestic unions in their home state of New Jersey. Now the dramatic film treatment of their story, with Julianne Moore and Ellen Page respectively portraying Heter and Andree, comes out in the time of legal gay marriage.
Images courtesy of Sundance Selects, Netflix, Virgil Films & Entertainment, Cinedigm, Fox Searchlight Pictures, A24, Code Red, PBS, BBC, Portrait Films, Sylvia Rivera Law Project, ESPN, First Run Features, The Weinstein Company, Urban Winter Entertainment & Duke Media, Horizon Unlimited, and Lieutenant Films.