All movies aim to give audiences a look into worlds that are different our own, but documentaries do that in a unique way, offering insights that go beyond both the neatly structured narratives of fiction films and the abstract facts and statistics we read in the news. In particular, great social documentaries often complicate the easy slogans and solutions offered by pundits by adding background and texture that can’t be captured via any other medium.
The streaming era has made some of the best and most informative of these films much more accessible. And some of them are wholly unparalleled in humanizing the challenges America faces in 2018 — with regard to education, race, domestic violence, policing, young people, the free press, the machinations of political elites, and more.
Here are five great social documentaries you can stream at home right now. None of them are polemics. Some of them are among the best films of the year. And they’re all well worth your time.
Crime + Punishment (Hulu)
The practice of policing based on quotas — requiring officers to arrest a minimum number of people within a particular time frame — was outlawed in New York City in 2010. Such requirements, opponents argued, turned police officers away from serving the community and finding ways to dispel violence before it happens. Instead, officers would end up making arrests to fill quotas. And those arrests often happened disproportionately in low-income minority communities.
But outlawing quotas didn’t make them go away. Using interviews, secretly recorded conversations, and other footage shot from 2014 to 2017, Stephen Maing’s documentary Crime + Punishment explores the NYPD’s ongoing but concealed use of quotas and their effects on not just the citizens of New York but officers in the police department too.
The resulting documentary is damning and revealing, not just about the ways that officers are coerced into maintaining questionable ethical practices but also about how they’re punished if they don’t. Its main subjects are members of the NYPD 12, a group of officers who sued the city during the course of the documentary, saying they had experienced pressure to meet illegal quotas and had been penalized by their commanding officers when they refused. (One of the officers, Edwin Raymond, was profiled in a 2016 issue of the New York Times Magazine.)
Maing followed several officers from the NYPD 12, as well as a private investigator and a young mother who became an activist after her son was jailed, documenting their stories and making a strong case for the dangers of quota-based policing.
It’s vital watching for New Yorkers, but important for everyone who cares about justice on their city’s streets and in its precincts — especially because the NYPD’s system of policing is a template for police forces across the country.
Crime + Punishment is streaming on Hulu.
Minding the Gap (Hulu)
One of the most extraordinary films of the year is Minding the Gap, which starts out as an engrossing documentary about a group of young people in Rockford, Illinois, who skateboard together and grow up together. But as the film unfolds, it expands from being a skate movie into something much bigger.
Minding the Gap is particularly concerned with domestic violence — Rockford has some of the highest rates of domestic abuse in the state and the country — and how generational patterns of abuse repeat themselves. Two of the film’s subjects, Zack and Nina, are in a tumultuous relationship, and they eventually have a child together. Another, Keire, speaks vulnerably about his struggles to find work and cope with his relationship with his “disciplinarian” father.
One of the main subjects is Bing Liu, who is also the film’s director and often speaks from behind the camera. Liu interviews his mother on camera about his own childhood and his abusive stepfather. And as the film goes on, we watch him grow up and struggle to understand how to navigate his relationship with Zack and Nina, as well as the younger Keire.
Minding the Gap isn’t an easy movie to watch, but it’s an important a dive into a reality that many young Americans face, with a resolutely subjective viewpoint that lends it credence and heft. It’s one of the best documentaries of 2018, and one of the best films of the year.
Minding the Gap is streaming on Hulu.
America to Me (Starz)
If you want to observe American society in microcosm, you can’t beat high school — something filmmakers have known for a long time. The latest project in the “genre” comes from Steve James, one of America’s most prominent and respected documentarians, who goes to high school to think about America in 2018.
For America to Me, a 10-part documentary series, James and a team of young filmmakers spent a year at Oak Park and River Forest High School (OPRF), an elite, racially diverse public high school in a suburb west of Chicago. It’s known for being one of the most progressive schools in the region.
James became interested in filming in the high school because he lives in Oak Park, and his own children went there. In 2015, the school garnered national attention when it hosted a Black Lives Matter assembly that only the school’s black students were permitted to attend.
Over 10 episodes of America to Me, named for a line in a poem by Langston Hughes, James and his crew follow 12 OPRF students, along with several administrators and teachers, through the 2015–’16 school year. The series is frank about difficulties the filmmakers encountered as they tried to capture their characters’ stories, and it’s self-aware about how race and implicit bias in particular affects the students’ educational experiences, even in a school whose population isn’t considered at-risk.
The result is funny, poignant, and gripping — America in microcosm through the lens of its teenagers, who navigate personal troubles against the backdrop of their country’s own big conversations.
Get Me Roger Stone (Netflix)
When political news is made in 2018, it seems like Roger Stone is always lurking in the wings somewhere. Stone has served as an informal adviser to Donald Trump for years. His close business associate Paul Manafort, defended by Trump, was recently found guilty of a number of financial crimes. And Stone himself may be in Department of Justice special counsel Robert Mueller’s sights too.
But that’s just who Roger Stone is. As journalist Jeffrey Toobin puts it early on in the 2017 Netflix documentary Get Me Roger Stone, he’s the “sinister Forrest Gump of American politics,” popping up everywhere from Watergate to the Trump campaign.
Stone wears such monikers like a badge of honor. Get Me Roger Stone traces the history of American conservatism from Nixon’s downfall to Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. And while it brings in talking heads to add background — including New Yorker writers Toobin and Jane Mayer, who have intimate knowledge of the history, as well as Fox News personality Tucker Carlson — its main narrator is Stone himself, who has no qualms about what he’ll say on camera.
Stone portrays himself as a dandy and a dirtbag, a sleazeball who embodies the rage and drive for fame that sits at the heart of the worst corners of American politics. He’s an Infowars regular and an object of some marvel and fear to everyone, even those on his side.
He has principles, but they’re entirely in service of staying in the public eye; he calls them “Stone’s rules,” and sprinkles them throughout the film. One such rule: “It is better to be infamous than to never be famous at all.” Another: “Hate is a more powerful motivator than love.”
Get Me Roger Stone is streaming on Netflix.
Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press (Netflix)
As a documentary, the 2017 film Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press is conventional, aiming more to inform and convince its audience that there is an assault on journalism in the US than to be cinematically innovative. The movie competently builds each chunk of its tale — beginning with Hulk Hogan’s sex tape lawsuit against Gawker Media, which Hogan won in 2016 — with interviews and news footage, as the participants in its events as well as the journalists who wrote about them recount their memories.
But there’s a sort of twist in the middle that casts new light on everything that came before, and that gives Nobody Speak the feel of a thriller — one built on very recent history.
It’s unlikely that anyone who watches the film won’t have at least a vague memory of the strange court case that ultimately brought down the bad kid of online journalism, Gawker. But Nobody Speak carefully dissects that story, bringing in former employees (including Gawker founder Nick Denton) and lawyers from the case, so that it makes more sense to those who wouldn’t have grasped its significance at the time.
Nobody Speak covers the Gawker trial in so much detail (and it’s necessary, given the complexity of the case) that Peter Thiel, the mogul who was revealed to be bankrolling Hogan’s lawsuit, doesn’t even show up until halfway through the film.
Thiel’s involvement is no longer the complete and total shocker it was when it was first discovered — anyone who followed the story in real time will know it’s coming — but once he arrives, the movie shifts from a bizarre courtroom story to an ominous, and very convincing, demonstration of the threat that big money tied to big egos poses to press freedom in America.
Nobody Speak is streaming on Netflix.