10 Documentaries That Are Worth Your Time

by | Mar 5, 2024 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

10 Documentaries That Are Worth Your Time 

By Megan Bergeson 

Documentaries are a great way to be entertained and educated at the same time. These films introduce you to new topics as well as gain more depth in certain topics you may already be knowledgeable about.

Watching documentaries can also give you insight into professional videography and show the qualities of effective filmmaking.  

Here are 10 Documentaries that are worth your time:

  1. Paris is Burning (1990) 
  1. How to Survive a Plague (2012) 
  1. The Central Park Five (2012) 
  1. Blackfish (2013) 
  1. The Overnighters (2014) 
  1. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015) 
  1. 13th (2016) 
  1. I Am Not Your Negro (2016) 
  1. O. J.: Made in America (2016) 
  1. Cusp (2021) 


Documentary films are the perfect platforms to create dialog. Freedom of speech is one of America’s core beliefs.

Documentaries serve as a powerful tool to bring important topics to light while captivating the audience and sparking a conversation about social and political movements.  

Paris Is Burning (1990) 

This 1990 American documentary, filmed in the mid-to-late 1980s, is about the ball culture of New York City.

This film centers around the African-American, Latino, gay and transgender communities involved in New York City’s drag balls.  

Paris is Burning is seen to be an invaluable documentary of the end of the “Golden Age” in New York City.

It’s a thoughtful exploration of race, class, gender, and sexuality in America.  

In 2016, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant”. 

Where to watch: Apple TV 

How to Survive a Plague (2012) 

Another socially impactful documentary, How to Survive a Plague focuses on the early years of the AIDS epidemic in America.

Beginning at the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in New York City, the documentary follows a group of AIDS activists (ACT UP) and their struggle for a response from the United States government and medical establishment in developing effective HIV/AIDS medications.  

The documentary included interviews with activists, physicians, and members of underground organizations as well as clips of protests, meetings, and news coverage taking place during the 1980s and 1990s. 

Critics have called How to Survive a Plague, “Angry, powerful, stirring, and a brilliantly constructed documentary about the activist who pushed for action to combat the AIDS epidemic”. 

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube 

The Central Park Five (2012) 

Filmmakers Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon examined the 1989 case of the Central Park jogger.

Where five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem were wrongfully convicted of raping a white woman in New York City’s Central Park.

The film covers the Central Park jogger case, the arrests, trials, convictions, and vacating convictions of these 5 men.  

The film received a Peabody Award (honors the most powerful, enlightening, and invigorating stories in television, radio, and online media) in 2013 “for telling a harrowing, instructive story of fear, racism and mob mentality, and for exposing the media madness that fueled the investigation”. 

Where to watch: Apple TV, PBS.org 

Blackfish (2013) 

Blackfish is a 2013 American documentary film covering the controversy over captive killer whales.

It focuses on Tillikum, an orca whale held by SeaWorld.

Tillikum was involved in the deaths of three people as one of the consequences of keeping orcas in captivity.

This film covers the capture of Tillikum in 1983 off the coast of Iceland and his harassment by fellow captive orcas, which contributed to the orca’s aggression.  

 The documentary reports that whales have experienced extreme stress when their offspring were captured in the wild and separated after breeding in water parks.

It features interviews from former SeaWorld trainers describing their experiences as well as footage of attacks on trainers and other captive whales. 

Rotten Tomatoes critics called this film “an aggressive, impassioned documentary that will change the way you look at performance killer whales”.  

Where to watch: Netflix 

The Overnighters (2014) 

This film depicts the lives of people chasing the American dream of high salaries in the North Dakota oil boom, only to discover that affordable housing was almost impossible to find.

Much of the focus is on local pastor Jay Reinke, who allowed over 1,000 different people to stay at his Williston, North Dakota church over a period of about two years.  

When the film was released in 2014 portions of all box office receipts were donated to North Dakota’s local affordable housing charities.  

Where to watch: Tubi, Apple TV 

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015) 

This film is a biography about the Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain.

It chronicles the life of Cobain from his birth, troubled early life and teenage years, and rise to fame as the front man of Nirvana. Until to his death in April 1994 at the age of 27.

The significance of this film is Cobain’s struggle with depression and addiction while becoming one of the most influential musicians of his time.  

The film includes artwork by Cobain as well as music and sound collages composed by him.

The Rolling Stone described the film as “the unfiltered Kurt experience, as a human being, a husband and a father”. 

Where to watch: HBO Now, Hulu 

13th (2016) 

This American documentary film explores the intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States.

It’s titled after the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which abolished slavery throughout the country in 1865, expect involuntary servitude as a punishment for conviction of a crime.  

13th contends that slavery has been strung along since the end of the Civil War through criminalizing behavior and enabling police to arrest poor freedmen and force them to work for the state under convict leasing.

This film centers around the history of racial inequality in the United States, focusing on the fact that the nation’s prisons are mostly filled with African-Americans.  

This film gained praise from a number of film critics and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special.  

Where to watch: Netflix 

I Am Not Your Negro (2016) 

This 2016 documentary was based on James Baldwin’s (American novelist, essayist, and activist) unfinished manuscript Remember This House.

Narrated by actor Samuel L. Jackson, this film dives into the history of racism in the United States through Baldwin’s notes, letters, and lives of the civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.

It also recognizes his observations of American history.   

 This film received high approval ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and critics have said, “I Am Not Your Negro offers an incendiary snapshot of James Baldwin’s crucial observations on American race relations and a sobering reminder of how far we have yet to go”. 

 Where to watch: Netflix, Hulu

  1. J.: Made in America (2016)

Another biographical documentary, O.J: Made in America, explores the celebrity life and football career of O.J. Simpson. It was released as a five-part miniseries for ESPN Films and their 30 for 30 series.  

Starting from O.J.’s career at the University of Southern California, and his celebrity popularity within American culture, to his trial for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman, and acquittal and later on conviction for a Las Vegas robbery.  

This film documented the rise and fall of the beloved O.J. Simpson, whose high-profile murder trial exposed American racial tensions, leaving the nation divided.  

After receiving an approval rating from Rotten Tomatoes of 100%, this film went on to win an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

The Los Angeles Times praised the documentary stating, “the film is an exceptional 7 ½ hour documentary, so perceptive, empathetic and compelling you never want it to end.”  

 Where to watch: Hulu, ESPN+ 

Cusp (2021) 

Cusp takes place in a military town in Texas and chronicles the teenage years of three girls. In this Texas town, there is little to do — liquor, drugs, and guns are standard recreational accessories.  

 These friends are followed to hangouts, fast-food outings, bonfire parties by the directors to observe intimate moments within their homes and social circles.

This film illustrates the sensitivity of adolescent girlhood and how these girls experience it.

It shows how they run away from or assimilate to society’s expectations and misogyny as a way to cope and get through life.  

 Cusp scored 95% on Rotten Tomatoes and won an award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

Although this film has not been released for public viewing yet, keep an eye out for it to be released to streaming services soon.  

 Documentary filmmaking is vital to a democratic society.

It gives you a platform to tell someone’s story from their perspective and allows you to take a walk in their shoes.

They help build a sense of humanity and give a voice to people who otherwise would not have been heard.

Just like journalists, documentary filmmakers hold people of power accountable for actions, while educating the public.  

 So grab some popcorn and enjoy this list of documentaries that will leave you wanting to learn more and possibly spark creativity for your own filmmaking career.   


Sources: Rotten Tomatoes, Vogue, Wiki 



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