The Best Documentaries Currently Streaming on HBO Max

These titles are stranger than fiction.

paris is burning
'Paris Is Burning' | Miramax Films
'Paris Is Burning' | Miramax Films

For years, HBO has cultivated the production of world-class documentaries and docuseries, and it's only gotten better with age. From true-crime to social justice to exposés, the premium cable channel has produced some of the most culturally relevant nonfiction of the 21st century and now, with HBO Max, subscribers have access to all of them, along with many of the documentaries and docuseries produced for HBO Max and WarnerMedia's other brands (e.g., CNN, TNT) that don't carry the prestigious HBO Documentary Films banner. Below, you'll find the best HBO Max has to offer right now. 

ALSO READ: The Best Documentaries of 2021 and the Best Documentaries Streaming on Amazon

A Dangerous Son (2018)

Liz Garbus is one of the most prolific, proficient, and versatile documentary filmmakers working today, and has many collaborations with HBO on her list of credtis, including the true-crime movie There's Something Wrong with Aunt Diane (2011) and docuseries I'll Be Gone in the Dark (2020), also both streaming on HBO Max. With the important and deeply concerning feature A Dangerous Son, which is difficult to watch at times, she tackles the ever-timely issue of children with severe emotional and mental illness while separately profiling three struggling families. Providing an alternative focus regarding the increasing problem of school violence (contrasting against the greater prevalence of gun-control-focused docs), Garbus’s emotional, character-driven film works as an alarming expose and another accomplishment in dramatic nonfiction storytelling for the director.

Allen v. Farrow (2021)

It's no surprise that this four-part documentary, covering the minefield of sexual assault allegations against director Woody Allen, as well as dissecting the disturbing recurring themes in the filmmaker's body of work, was practically immediately controversial. Reopening the wounds from Allen and Mia Farrow's relationship, one of the most publicized and messy Hollywood sagas, would not be a simple task with clear-cut answers. With key interviews from Mia Farrow, her son Ronan Farrow and her daughter Dylan Farrow, who accused Allen of molesting her as a young girl, the docuseries, directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, has been criticized for leaving out details to simplify the complicated history. But hearing about all the trauma inflicted by Allen during and after his relationship with Mia Farrow on her and Dylan, specifically, and how Allen was able to leverage his fame to divert attention away from negative headlines, results in a harrowing, frustrating, yet essential watch.

Andre the Giant (2018)

Andre the Giant was great, in so many ways. The towering professional wrestler, also known for starring in The Princess Bride and playing Bigfoot in a seminal episode of The Six Million Dollar Man, was an easily lovable figure in his lifetime, and he fortunately continues his appeal in this HBO Sports documentary, executive-produced by Bill Simmons. Not that he’s simply given an exalting profile, but director Jason Hehir is certainly in awe of his subject and paints an adoring portrait with few warts on display. The film covers Andre the myth, Andre the legend, Andre the ladies man, and, yep, Andre the flatulent. It showcases him as a champion and a tragic human being. Even if you’re not a wrestling fan, you’ll appreciate and enjoy Andre the Giant.

At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal (2019)

The harrowing, tragic, and infuriating story of the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the USA Gymnastics national team and Michigan State University lasted so long and affected so many people that it's virtually impossible to capture the full scope of it in a feature-length HBO film. Dr. Larry Nassar is formally accused of assaulting at least 250 people during his time as an athletic trainer for both the women's national team and at Michigan State, though it's possible the true number will never be known. Director Erin Lee Carr finds a wide range of victims willing to share their story on film, which helps illuminate the depths of Nassar's manipulation, his brazenness, and the myriad institutional authorities who failed to protect children despite warnings and official complaints about this highly regarded trainer's behavior.

anthony bourdain parts unknown

Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (2013–2018)

Anchored by the late, great food-entertainment polymath Anthony Bourdain—who, it should be noted, was a fine chef at New York City's Les Halles before his breakout 2000 book, Kitchen Confidential, set him on a path to bona fide stardom—Parts Unknown remains true to the showman's sleight-of-hand that probably got its predecessor No Reservations greenlit in the first place. This is a show about food in the same way that The Shining is a movie about hotel management, which is to say: nominally, if at all. Sure, Bourdain eats, but you can find better food porn in other food shows. The CNN series's truer focus is telling stories about the ways communities build, nurture, and examine themselves. While Bourdain may no longer be with us, this series and its 12 excellent seasons are part of his lasting legacy and a testament to cultures surrounding food.

Baltimore Rising (2017)

In the wake of Freddie Gray's 2015 death after an arrest, Baltimore erupted with protests against police and the crippling inequality that grips much of the country. This HBO original documentary chronicles what has become a scene repeated in cities and towns throughout America: an incident of police violence becomes public, the official response lacks sufficient remedy or urgency, and the result exposes deeper issues of rising inequality and an indifferent ruling class. Each story has a unique human element, but one of the many sad features of Baltimore Rising is that it could happen anywhere in the United States, at any time.

The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (2020)

The life and times of one of the world's most toe-tapping family bands is laid bare in Frank Marshall's illuminating and emotional documentary, which charts the meteoric rise of Maurice, Robin, and Barry Gibb, as well as the parallel and ultimately tragic journey of their youngest brother Andy. From chart-topping singles to sold-out arenas, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart is an essential watch for anyone who ever felt the call of the dance floor. 

Beware the Slenderman (2016)

In 2014, a pair of 12-year-old girls were charged as adults with attempted homicide after stabbing a friend in what they said was an attempt to prove the existence of a mysterious creature named Slender Man. Director Irene Taylor Brodsky's gripping documentary details their crime, now known as the Slender Man stabbing, a near-fatal tragedy that almost took an innocent schoolgirl's life. The helmer deftly mixes interviews, interrogation footage, and reenactments to raise a serious moral question—should children be held accountable for adult crimes?—and craft a cautionary tale about the internet's power to warp impressionable minds.

Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists (2018)

Documentaries about journalists can be challenging because it's difficult to make the bracing, impactful words on the page sing in a way that conveys the urgency and wit of the writer. Too often, directors are reduced to recruiting actors to read the prose of famous pieces over grainy photos. Thankfully, Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists, a twin portrait of New York columnists Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, is packed with enough interviews and archival footage to work around that problem, diving into anecdotes and memories that evoke a now lost era of ink-stained journalism.

Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

More than a decade before he altered the course of a criminal investigation with the 2015 Robert Durst docuseries The Jinx, director Andrew Jarecki dug into the home videos of another family facing life-altering criminal charges. When the patriarch of the Friedman family, Arthur, and one of his three sons, Jesse, get accused of abusing students of their computer class, the family decides to take videos to chronicle the ordeal, never intending to have them viewed by the public. Jarecki's access to these videos—obtained thanks to another son, David, who went on to become a popular party clown and was the subject of another Jarecki project, Just a Clown—creates a remarkably intimate portrait of a family torn apart, uncertain of the truth, losing trust in each other, and facing the prospect of total destruction. While both Arthur and Jesse eventually confess, the end of this hugely influential HBO film will leave you feeling less certain than ever about what actually transpired.

Class Action Park (2020)

In the late 1970s, a new attraction hit unassuming Vernon Township, New Jersey: Action Park, an amusement and water park that drew in thousands from the Tri-state area. It drew attention not just because of its go-carts, wave pools, and massive, experimental water slides, but because of how many injuries, lawsuits, and even deaths they caused. This illuminating HBO Max documentary from directors Chris Charles Scott and Seth Porges balances the hilarity and shock value of the park with its misbehaving teenage employees and dangerous rides, while examining the seediness behind it and what's ultimately a darker narrative. It's a tricky line to walk, but you end the movie with a deeper understanding of this oddball tale of sex, drugs, and go-carts.

Cries From Syria (2017)

The Syrian Civil War has wrought years of destruction, spurred a global refugee crisis, and totally destabilized a nation containing some of the oldest relics of human civilization. Director Evgeny Afineevsky got on the ground level of the conflict for this documentary, featuring videos shot on phones by those caught in the middle of the war, and highlighting interviews with children and other refugees displaced by the fighting. Like all features on Syria's recent history, it's a heartbreaking look at a generation-defining war, one that gives voice to those most deeply affected by it.   

david bowie the last five years

David Bowie: The Last Five Years (2017)

The man, the legend, the iconoclast who helped define a generation of post-war music didn't tell many people in his final years that he was battling terminal illness. But he had a laser-like focus apparent in his surprise last album, Blackstar, and this documentary adds a new dimension to pop culture's ultimate chameleon.

David Lynch: The Art Life (2016)

Longtime fans of director David Lynch know better than to expect explanations from the enigmatic auteur. The Art Life features interviews at Lynch's home, but in typical Lynch fashion, he speaks mostly in anecdotes and oblique aphorisms, leaving you feeling like you don't really have a better sense of what exactly makes him tick. But, like a typical Lynch film, it's fascinating. Watching Lynch paint, or describe his banal childhood, captures your attention in surprising ways.  

Diego Maradona (2019)

Oscar-winning documentarian Kapadia's work tends to focus on tragic genius, a theme that continues in his examination of perhaps the greatest soccer player ever to live. Diego Maradona's sublime left foot was matched only by his penchant for cocaine, partying, and eating, which somehow didn't totally destroy his career but has contributed to a string of high-profile failures in his post-playing days. Unlike Kapadia's previous subjects—Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna and singer Amy Winehouse—Maradona is still alive and kicking, part of the reason the story is largely restricted to the number 10's trophy-winning days at Napoli, where he fell into a life dominated by addiction and organized crime. That limited scope is slightly to the film's detriment, but the inclusion of previously unreleased (and in some cases, newly discovered) footage makes Maradona an achievement in documentary filmmaking that fits perfectly in the trajectory of Kapadia's work.  

Elvis Presley: The Searcher (2018)

It’s hard to believe that more than 40 years after his death, there’s still room for another film on Elvis—a two-part, three-and-a-half-hour documentary at that. It’s an excellent look at the evolution of his music career. Instead of the conventional talking-head approach, this doc opts for voiceovers, playing interviewees' words over tons of archival footage of the King, letting him remain in focus. Among those whose recollections and commentary make up the biographical oral history are Priscilla Presley, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Petty, whose recent passing makes for bittersweet inclusion.—Christopher Campbell

Exterminate All the Brutes (2021)

This sprawling four-part docuseries from Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro) deprograms centuries worth of whitewashed history lessons taught in American schools with the frank truth about the barbaric, exploitative greed of white people (typically men) that erased Native populations and drained resources worldwide in ugly, ruthless efforts to colonize continents. Realizing the concept and title of Swedish author Sven Lindqvist's nonfiction book, itself a line taken from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Peck's work—a hybrid of reenactments, where Josh Hartnett stands in across all episodes as the white specter of history, reflective, downright philosophical narration, and often offensive archival material from pop culture that speaks for itself—is a hugely important and deeply researched reframing of the whitewashed record of the past.

F for Fake (1973)

Orson Welles hosts viewers through a twisty tale of fakes and frauds and fabrications, and it plays like a cinematic magic show. Instead of sleight of hand, the Citizen Kane director uses sleight of editing, offering up a loose and demanding nonlinear narrative involving art forger Elmyr de Hory, hoax author Clifford Irving, and Welles' beautiful assistant—used as a distraction, of course—actress Oja Kodar. Plus, Welles himself as a self-admitted charlatan. Like most movies about the art of illusion, this one begs to be seen multiple times.

537 Votes (2020)

Released just ahead of the contentious 2020 presidential election, this political doc directed by Billy Corben (Screwball) couldn't have been more timely. It'll feel triggering for anyone who remembers and lost sleep over the 2000 election and the chaotic Florida recount, but the insightful piece unveils what really led George W. Bush to win the state by the slim margin that he did. It focuses on both the Elian Gonzalez dispute and the influence it had on which way Miami's Cuban population voted, as well as the devious tactics that the Bush administration took to secure a victory in Florida, where the candidate's brother was the governor to paint a fuller picture of the race. 

For All Mankind (1989)

Brian Eno's odd and otherworldly music scores Al Reinert's fantastic documentary about the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, which uses only archival footage and audio to describe what traveling through space and landing on another world could possibly be like. Look elsewhere for factoids and data, For All Mankind is all about evoking an indescribable, out-of-this-world mood. 

4 Little Girls (1997)

Spike Lee's heartbreaking nonfiction film recalls the events of September 15, 1963, when Klansmen detonated a bomb in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls. Piercing the violent streak against black Americans during the civil rights movement, empathizing with the families who suffered the greatest loss imaginable, and nailing an interview with George Wallace—the segregationist governor of Alabama at the time of the attack—whose atonement for fueling racist ideology can barely breach his cantankerous shell, 4 Little Girls is a masterpiece that needs to be seen and remembered.

Gimme Shelter (1970)

If you don't know your history of rock concerts, the Rolling Stones, or pop culture of the 1960s, then you may be able to go in cold to this Maysles Brothers film (co-directed by Charlotte Zwerin), which is mostly famous for its tragic plot twist. The doc chronicles the end of the Stones' 1969 US tour in the Maysles’ signature observational style, focusing on the Altamont Free Concert. What happened there was a shock to attendees and performers, and to the rest of the world, prior to its serving as the narrative curveball of this iconic film.

going clear documentary

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015)

Director Alex Gibney, who's focused his attention on Enron, Lance Armstrong, the Catholic Church, and various other deceivers of the public, perhaps made his biggest documentary splash with his Scientology exposé. Aided by celebrity ex-Scientologists like Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis, Going Clear depicts a cruel, vindictive, and profit-focused cult that owes its remarkable success at least in part to attracting high-profile adherents and intimidating those who attempt to leave. While it doesn't necessarily set out to change minds—at least, not those of Scientologists—the detail with which it describes the structure and methodology of the religion's leadership offers a revelatory look at a notoriously secretive group. 

Grey Gardens (1975)

Thank goodness the Beales existed in a time before modern reality television. And thank goodness they were captured through the lens of brothers Albert and David Maysles. Big Edie and Little Edie are the sort of documentary characters who all but leap off the screen. Their story, of high-class mother and daughter socialites living in a literally and metaphorically crumbling mansion, is the epitome of the stranger-than-fiction idea. It's also a vehicle through which we get to meet two wonderfully kooky ladies who are fascinating beyond belief (and the aunt and cousin to Jackie Onassis).

Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)

The first of Barbara Kopple's two Oscar-winning documentaries on striking workers (the other being American Dream), this riveting film transports us to Kentucky coal-miner country during a major labor dispute in the 1970s. It immerses us in the community and the culture and the issues of that time, with the director alternating between phantom observer and engaged participant. One thing that's not acknowledged, let alone appreciated enough, with the film is that it's also a kind of nonfiction musical, the soundtrack punctuating what is already a powerful piece of American folk cinema.   

Hoop Dreams (1994)

One of the rare docs to be nominated for an editing Oscar, Steve James' crowd-pleasing sports film follows two African-American teens through their high school basketball careers. It's a product of perfect luck and superb storytelling, a combination that makes for a highly entertaining and affecting feature that also carries a lot of social significance. For nearly three hours, we become completely invested in the lives of William Gates and Arthur Agee, concerned with nothing other than what happens to these two boys.

I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter (2019)

Broken up into two parts—the prosecution and the defense—this documentary walks through the highly publicized trial of Michelle Carter, on trial for encouraging her long-distance boyfriend over text messages to kill himself in 2014. Carter was an easy villain: She represented everything that society hates and fears about teenage girls, a "manipulative" and "crazy" petite, blonde white girl with cartoonishly expressive drawn-on eyebrows. While I Love You, Now Die acknowledges as much, it also upends the assumptions a casual follower of the case might have harbored. Carter had met her boyfriend, Conrad Roy, only a handful of times over their two-year relationship that existed primary over text messages and Gchats; Roy was incredibly depressed, and Carter, prescribed SSRIs herself, was a horribly lonely person convinced she was helping Roy by badgering him to take his own life. The binary presentation leaves a few gaps that could have been plugged up, but at its core, I Love You, Now Die is a thoroughly modern and messy story about teenagers, technology, mental health, and our justice system that's ill-prepared to juggle it all.

The Iceman Tapes (1992; 2001; 2003)

True-crime's popularity may have exploded in recent years, but from the early days of HBO came what remains one of the most eerie up-close-and-personal documentaries about the most notorious hitman in American history. This three-part interview sits down with Richard Kuklinski, the Gambino mafia's killer who murdered over 100 people and managed to keep his life a secret from his family. If you're interested in psychology, watching Kuklinski detail his crimes with indifference feels like a direct line to sociopathic behavior with chilling results.

I'll Be Gone In the Dark (2020)

I'll Be Gone in the Dark is different than most of the murder fodder that has bombarded TV, movies, and podcasts in recent years. The six-part HBO docuseries, which was based on Michelle McNamara's best-selling book of the same name, not only takes audiences on a wildly tragic dive into the hunt for the notorious murdering rapist known as "The Golden State Killer," the episodic tale explores the obsessive nature of true crime's fandom through the sympathetic perspective of the author. The result takes us into McNamara's world as she delves deeper into her investigation, plagued by sleepless nights and medicated dreams. The tragedy of the HBO series doesn't just reside in the victims' accounts of the attacks or the four-decades-long mission to capture the man, it exists within McNamara's own personal mental health struggle, which abruptly came to an end before Joseph D'Angelo was brought to justice. Her death solidifies the urgency of the story, which, unlike most sensationalized true-crime entertainment, shines a sympathetic light on the survivors' experiences. 

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (2019)

Documentarian Alex Gibney has trained his eye on plenty of organizations and people who have in some way deceived the public. He's investigated Enron, Lance Armstrong, and Scientology, to name a few. Now he turns his attention to one of the greatest scams in recent memory: Theranos, perpetrated by wunderkind entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes. The Inventor gives an enraging overview of Holmes' rise as the 19-year-old Stanford dropout selling investors on the idea that she'd simplify blood testing. That is, before it all came tumbling down, putting lives at risk in the process. Gibney describes in no uncertain terms how she shielded herself from criticism with Yoda-style jargon and powerful allies like Henry Kissinger. Holmes is a fascinating and somewhat inscrutable subject, and Gibney's piece makes a compelling companion to everything else that's been written about her house of cards.

robert durst in the jinx

The Jinx: The Life and Times of Robert Durst (2015)

If you didn't watch The Jinx when it aired in 2015, you almost certainly heard about it. This was the docuseries about Robert Durst, scion of the famous New York City real estate development family, a man who seems to bring death to the people closest to him. Hence the title: The Jinx. He must be jinxed! The fact that Durst agreed to extensive interviews about his troubled life would have been enough to make The Jinx a compelling series, but when Durst was arrested on first-degree murder charges a day before the finale aired it became front-page news. You'll never get the words Durst muttered to himself in the bathroom out of your head. 

Kurt Cobain Montage of Heck (2015)

Of all the Kurt Cobain documentaries out there, this one is by far the most affecting. With full support from Cobain's family, including his widow, Courtney Love, and their daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, the film shares a lot of remarkable material for fans. And it's not your average biography: Director Brett Morgen uses animation inspired by Cobain's own artwork and superb sound design to create an experience for the viewer, instead of being just another place to hear about the life of the iconic Nirvana frontman.

Leaving Neverland (2019)

This HBO original documentary is disturbing and explosive, focusing on the stories of two men who say Michael Jackson sexually abused them for years when they were children. By shifting focus away from the King of Pop and onto the alleged victims (Jackson was never convicted of assault or abuse during his lifetime), documentarian Dan Reed shows the immense star power Jackson wielded to influence not just the boys, but their entire families. Both victims describe their abuse in clinical detail, which makes for a queasy watch, but a worthwhile one as pop culture continues its long reckoning with the heroes it elevates and celebrates.

Life According to Sam (2013)

Rarely do we encounter documentary characters as courageous and insightful about their own lives as Sam Berns. We first meet Sam, who has progeria, at age 13, which is the usual life expectancy for someone with the disorder. We follow him over the course of a couple years while also watching his mother, co-founder of the Progeria Research Foundation, implementing a trial treatment for Sam and a number of other kids from different parts of the world. It's an incredibly inspiring and hopeful documentary thanks to the optimism of its subjects, and the charm and maturity of Sam in particular.

The Loving Story (2011)

In 1965, Hope Ryden began documenting the ongoing story of Mildred and Richard Loving, whose mixed-race marriage triggered a landmark civil rights case (and is the subject of the 2016 feature film Loving). Nancy Buirski formed a historical film around footage from the trial's archived materials, including Grey Villet's LIFE magazine photographs of the couple and audio from the Supreme Court proceedings. The result fully immerses viewers in the time and lives of its subjects.

McMillion$ (2020)

Some of the best documentary stories are the ones that feel so outrageous that they couldn't possibly be real. McMillion$ is a solid example of this type of truth that is absolutely stranger than fiction. The six-episode docuseries shines a light on the Monopoly game McDonald's ran for over a decade, from 1989 to 2001, and the baffling scam that coincided with the seemingly innocent contest. As the story unfolds, the stylized series introduces a quirky group of crime-fighters and criminal—and the mob, let's not forget about the mob—all orbiting around a $24-million dollar case of fraud that eluded law enforcement for years. McMillion$ explores the crime from every angle, showing just how one man got away with selling off the game's winning tickets to family, friends, and neighbors, while also shining a light on the bad decisions a little bit of greed can inspire. 

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012)

In the years since the systemic child abuse rampant in the Catholic Church started coming to light, there's been a flood of stories that finally found their way to the larger public. Alex Gibney takes as his subject a particularly disturbing chapter from the Church's recent history: Four deaf men attempt to expose the priest who abused them while they were attending Wisconsin's St. John's School for the Deaf. The testimony of the men—voiced by Jamey Sheridan, Chris Cooper, Ethan Hawke, and John Slattery—further centers attention on the victims, a welcome break from examinations that focus on the Church, the Pope, and the centuries of tradition and power that surround them. 

mommy dead and dearest

Mommy Dead and Dearest (2017)

Mommy Dead and Dearest tells the unnerving story of Dee Dee and Gypsy Blanchard, a mother and daughter caught in a dysfunctional relationship that ultimately led to the mother's death. Throughout their life together, Dee Dee apparently suffered from Munchausen by proxy, claiming that Gypsy had a variety of chronic conditions and handicaps that required a wheelchair and rendered her with the mental capacity of a 7-year-old. Except: Gypsy was actually a healthy adult. Director Erin Lee Carr untangles the truth of what happened leading up to and following Dee Dee's murder, painstakingly tracking the years of abuse and how Gypsy fought back.  

Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki (2016)

Few animators have ever come close to being as prolific as Hayao Miyazaki, the mastermind behind the Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli. After spearheading many iconic projects for over 50 years, he made the decision to retire in 2013. Even though that decision ended up being very short lived, this documentary gets the man who once sketched beloved characters like Totoro and No Face in front of the camera as he was in the midst of going into retirement. Although the film is limited to exploring a two-year period and largely about his conflicting values surrounding his work ethic, fans of the living legend will likely welcome this tender and intimate look at his inner life.

The Paradise Lost trilogy (1996, 2000, 2011)

Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), about a horrendous triple-homicide case involving little boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, and the ensuing trial of the then-teenage suspects, is a pinnacle achievement in courtroom-focused true-crime documentary. Today the documentary is primarily revered for how it eventually helped free three clearly innocent men. But it's not a great film because of its impact. It's a great film because of its comprehensive documentation of a compelling story, which inspired viewers to actively participate in what happened next. All three installments deserve your time.

Paris Is Burning (1990)

How much do you know about the drag ball scene in late-1980s NYC? The relatively short running time of Paris Is Burning belies the depth and nuance given to complicated subjects like sex, gender, race, identity, family, the AIDS crisis, and more, with director Jennie Livingston having dedicated six years to compiling footage of the drag balls and interviews with the participants. The result is a gripping examination of a subculture that was marginalized, stigmatized, and often flat-out ignored.

Salesman (1968)

In this vintage piece of Americana, the Maysles brothers, with Charlotte Zwerin, capture the world of door-to-door Bible peddlers as if they're an endangered species. The filmmakers might as well have been documenting bygone traditions of the Inuit or the conservation of the last mountain gorillas in the Congo. The Maysles' best films concern ends of eras, marking turning points in cultural history large and small, and this one is a biggie, representing not just the death of the salesman, but the resonating question of whether God was dead. Neither actually went totally extinct, but this film still documents dinosaurs of a sort, performers of a now-rare art form.

The Scheme (2020)

For insight into the NCAA's inexplicable rules against paying college athletes for spending the majority of their time in highly publicized sports roles while the universities rake in billions, look no further than the endlessly fascinating The Scheme. Told through interviews, the doc focuses on Christian Dawkins, a charismatic and sharp young basketball recruiter from Saginaw, Michigan who figured out how to exploit the crooked system, working as the liaison between coaches desperately in need of talent and up-and-coming players, before he could legally drink. That is, until the FBI entrapment sent him to jail in a pay-to-play scheme as he sought funding for his own agency. 

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (2021)

There's so much to love in director Marilyn Agrelo's warm survey of the creation of Sesame Street, from the footage of Frank Oz and Jim Henson goofing off when the cameras were still rolling to the tender reminder of the way the show handled the death of Will Lee, otherwise known as Mr. Hooper. Based on the 2008 book by Michael Davis, it's an origin story detailing how the crew behind Sesame Street set out to make a new kind of children's television program, using techniques from advertising to push education, that was more interested in reaching minority and low income audiences than well-to-do suburban children. It's a largely rosy portrait, mentioning more complicated topics but then quickly moving past them, but any annoyance with its good nature is quickly forgotten. As a history lesson about one of the most important pieces of pop culture to ever grace the airwaves, it will have you smiling and singing.

12th & Delaware (2010)

Most of this film from Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp) takes place inside a Florida pro-life clinic located across the street from an abortion provider, where it quietly observes women who have gone to the wrong corner of the titular intersection by mistake and are being dissuaded from having the procedure. If there's any bias from the filmmakers, it doesn't show through the doc's respectful and balanced examination of both sides of a divisive issue. What is on screen, however, is not always so civil. This is a culture war movie, and the battles get ugly.

back up singers in 20 feet from stardom

20 Feet From Stardom (2013)

Backup singers trot around the globe with some of the biggest acts in music and have contributed harmonies to hundreds of songs, but stuck in the background, in the shadow of the artist they're supporting, they rarely get the recognition they deserve. In this Best Documentary Oscar winner, Morgan Neville (Won't You Be My Neighbor) finally gives the women known for assisting major rock groups, from The Rolling Stones to Bruce Springsteen, the spotlight. While an interesting, untold story that's flooded with verses about how fantastic music is, the doc doubles as an unflinching look at the tough reality and racism imbued in the music industry that leaves talented voices, well, 20 feet from stardom. 

The Vow (2020– )

HBO's The Vow follows ex-members of NXIVM, a sex cult that masqueraded as a self-help program, as they come together to stop the reign of terror of the group's nefarious ringleader Keith Raniere. Cutting in footage taken by Raniere's former right-hand man, the series lays out the horrific tactics used to keep NXIVM members indoctrinated and the real-time grassroots efforts to save women from the cult's clutches. It culminates in the shocking finale with Raniere giving feedback on a rough cut of the series, the sort of sociopathic behavior that someone who "feels no remorse" for their crimes would display. A second season chronicling the trails of Raniere and other NXIVM members has been confirmed.

The War Room (1993)

The majority of political campaign films concentrate on the candidates, in part because they're a bigger draw. But this documentary from Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker (who'd worked on a kind of short precursor 30 years earlier, titled Campaign Manager) created movie stars out of James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, turning them into an unlikely attraction for audiences. It might not have been so popular a film if Bill Clinton hadn't become president, but either way, it'd still be a riveting look inside the workings of a fully charged political machine.

Welcome to Chechnya (2020)

A devastating international human rights story, Welcome to Chechnya follows the efforts of activists to get lesbian and gay people of the oppressively homophobic Russian republic, where being anything but heterosexual means almost certain death. David France, whose oeuvre has brought necessary light to undertold LGBTQIA stories in history, cuts in archival clips of violent Chechan operations to detain gay people against the real-time struggle of protecting those trying to flee the country, all of it a horrifying example of oppressive homophobia that still grips so many places in the world.

when the levees broke

When the Levees Broke (2006)

Spike Lee channeled all his creative and political force into this massive masterpiece, a four-part documentary that chronicles the systemic failures and human tragedy that made Hurricane Katrina one of the worst disasters of contemporary America. With eyewitness accounts of what it was like to live through the storm and its aftermath, When the Levees Broke indicts just about every Bush-era response to the hurricane, and shows the devastating degree to which a natural disaster became a manmade disaster that left one of America's richest cultural centers changed forever.

The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling (2018)

Director Judd Apatow is often criticized for letting his comedies run long, including banter-filled scenes and discursive plot-lines that push his tales of reluctant adulthood pass the two-hour mark. So, it's understandable if you're weary of The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, his 270 minute tribute to his friend and mentor Garry Shandling, the late star and creator of HBO's ground-breaking showbiz satire The Larry Sanders Show, which Apatow worked on as a writer and producer. But don't let the runtime scare you off: Zen Diaries is an intimate, revealing look at Shandling's creative process, career, and his eccentric manner of moving through the world. Its length gives Apatow the room to dig deeper than your average documentary about a comedian, and it never overstays its welcome.  

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