10 powerful documentaries to watch while you have the time

Learn about interesting people, historical events or political happenings you might not know about with these films.

While you can’t go wrong with a good box set, sometimes you want your sofa sessions to involve a bit more learning.

Documentaries have the power to grip you as much as any miniseries, as well as teaching you about a subject you might not know about.

With a recent spate of documentary series setting the Internet on fire – for example, The Tiger King and The Last Dance – we’ve taken the opportunity to look at some of the most groundbreaking documentary films you definitely need to watch.

1. 13th

Ava DuVernay’s 2016 film tells the grim story of the US prison system and racial injustice. It’s a sobering look at an incredibly important topic: the incarceration of African Americans in the USA. It’s well told with plenty of voices you’ll recognise, from activists like Angela Davis to politicians like Cory Booker. The title references the 13th Amendment in the constitution, which abolished slavery and said imprisonment should only be used as a punishment for a crime.

Available on Netflix.

2. Get Me Roger Stone

Staying on the American theme is the political documentary Get Me Roger Stone. The film follows right-wing lobbyist and strategist Stone, from one of his first jobs working on the Nixon campaign to his involvement in getting Donald Trump elected.

Plenty has happened since the 2017 film – including Stone’s arrest and conviction for crimes including witness tampering – but it’s still an eye-opening look into one of the most controversial and eccentric figures in politics.

Available on Netflix.

3. Quincy

Music fans will love Quincy, which profiles the life of the inimitable musician, producer and songwriter Quincy Jones. With a cool 80 Grammy nominations and 28 Grammy awards to his name, Jones has had a fascinating life. He was born on the south side of Chicago in the early 1930s, forging a career as a musician in the Jim Crow era, then working with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Michael Jackson. The fact this documentary is directed by his daughter, actor Rashida Jones, makes it even more personal.

Available on Netflix.

4. The Act of Killing

This 2012 film follows some of the individuals involved in the Indonesian genocide of the mid-1960s, which targeted Communist sympathisers and certain ethnic groups like the Chinese. It’s a chilling watch – particularly in how the perpetrators remember and talk about specific killings – but it shows just how confrontational and powerful a documentary can be.

The filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer followed up in 2014 with The Look of Silence.

Available on Amazon and YouTube.

5. McQueen

You don’t have to be a fashion fan to appreciate the documentary on late designer Alexander McQueen. The 2018 biopic follows his early life in east London, his rise to fame as the ‘enfant terrible’ of fashion, and his struggles with mental health leading up to his 2010 suicide. It’s an unmissable look into the life and mind of someone who is often referred to as a tortured genius.

Available on Netflix.

6. I Am Not Your Negro

The 2016 documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, uses James Baldwin’s writings to tell the story of racism in the US. Narrated by Samuel L Jackson, it’s a clever and powerful way to bring Baldwin’s unfinished memoir to the screen. The film explores his thoughts on racial injustice, his life and friendships with activists like Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X.

Available on Amazon.

7. Icarus

Icarus is one of the most surprising documentaries you’ll ever watch. At first, it follows the director Bryan Fogel trying to see if he can get away with doping in a gruelling amateur cycling race. It soon descends into much more than that, as Fogel stumbles upon the state doping scheme in Russia, uncovering one of the biggest scandals in sport.

Available on Netflix.

8. Amy

Asif Kapadia’s 2015 documentary is a heartbreaking look at the life of Amy Winehouse, including her struggles with drugs and alcohol, her relationship with her family, and her treatment by the media.

If you like director Kapadia’s style, follow up with some of his other documentaries, like Maradona or Senna.

Available on YouTube.

9. Searching for Sugar Man

This 2012 documentary is about the American musician Rodriguez, who was hugely popular in the 1970s and 1980s in South Africa, while never achieving the same level of fame in his home country. In Searching for Sugar Man, two of his South African fans go on a journey to find out more about Rodriguez and whether his rumoured death was true.

Available on Amazon.

10. Honeyland

The best documentaries take you somewhere you’ve never been before, revealing a world completely unlike your own. That’s what makes Honeyland so transfixing, as it follows female beekeepers in the mountains of North Macedonia and the ancient techniques they use.

Available on Amazon.

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26th Jun 2020
Thanks for voting!
My documentary of choice among many other brilliant and thought provoking documentaries would be:

What the bleep do we know the movie -
25th Jun 2020
Thanks for voting!
If you're feeling gloomy about the world's future, do give this an airing.
It's informative, it's entertaining, it's excellent.
Don't Panic: The Truth About Population ...
26th Jun 2020
Thanks for voting!
While I saw the Hans Rosling's entertaining and encouraging statistics video, showing very cleverly all populations levelling out in the future.
There is always an event that puts a monkey wrench in the best forecasts, graphs and bubbles notwithstanding. ( Not to be too pessimistic!)

Yes there are major changes in third world countries as far as education and contraception is concerned.
While in Africa, there was a drive to give free condoms to everybody. Unfortunately, the condoms were stapled to the card and millions of condoms became useless.
Who knows, some may not have noticed in the dark. 😉

I wonder if during this covid lockdown, there will be a surge in pregnancies, or maybe not.
The future is an unknown quantity so Hans Rosling is a 'glass half full' idealist at best.
Interesting statistics though, singling out the British as being stupid and on a similar level to Chimpanzees was VERY interesting!

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