Last Updated: June 8th, 2020
In Why I Write, George Orwell observed a truism that transcends any era: “In our age, there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues.”
Orwell nailed it. In 2020, politics seep into our lives in almost every way. Racism, gender bias, food systems, public health, police violence, Indigenous genocide… the woes we face as people are deeply rooted in our political system. Even the means by which you’re reading this — the internet — is inextricable from the political machine.
There’s a flip side, though. Politics has the ability to inspire us to action and offer avenues for tenaciously pursuing a better future. It has the potential to launch movements and, ideally, be a vital ingredient in the universe’s gradual arc toward justice. If we’re able to make sense of its tangled mix of malleable facts, opinions, and veiled interests. It’s a ton to navigate and the onus is on you to stay informed.
If you truly want to be “woke” with regard to any political issue, you’ll have to dig and dig until you find something that you decide nears the truth. To start your journey, check out these ten great political documentaries currently streaming on Netflix.
Run Time: 100 mins. | IMDb Rating: 8.2/10
Ava DuVernay’s look at America’s deeply rooted systemic racism is essential viewing. Named for the 13th amendment in which chattel slavery was ended but penal slavery was enshrined, 13th (our review) examines the laws and culture that have reinforced an oppressive system against people of color.
The film expertly underscores the fact that, in America, the road from the end of slavery toward equality continues to be long and full of strife.
Get Me Roger Stone (2017)
Run Time: 92 mins. | IMDb Rating: 7.4/10
You’ll either walk away from this documentary wanting to burn it all down or glad a man like Roger Stone exists. Stone was instrumental in turning modern politics away from facts and professional records toward the use of emotion and vitriol to gain power — something he’s deeply proud of.
The film reveals Stone — who’s now a bona fide felon — to be a man of so many perplexing layers, ranging from inspirational to infuriating, often within a single sentence. Get Me Roger Stone is an account of how we got from Nixon to Trump and how emotion, misinformation, and flat-out misanthropy can win elections.
Feminists: What Were They Thinking (2018)
Run Time: 86 mins. | IMDb Rating: 6.9/10
There are few words in the American political vernacular more maligned and misrepresented than “feminist.” That makes this Netflix documentary a must-watch. The film traces the steps of feminism from the late 1960s to modern-day along a winding road of triumphs and setbacks for women.
This is an American history that’s crucial for all Americans know and Feminists: What Were They Thinking makes for a great entry point to a movement that’s changing the world for the better day-by-day.
Reversing Roe (2018)
Run Time: 99 mins. | IMDb Rating: 7.4/10
Over 300 new laws have gone on the books limiting abortions across America since the ascendency of George W. Bush in 2001. Right now, abortion, women’s rights, and medical freedoms are at the epicenter of the American political zeitgeist, and Reversing Roe is there to parse that political battlefront.
The film dives into the fight over reproductive rights from both sides and asks us to come forward and really search for what we believe in when it comes to abortion. This isn’t light watching for a casual Sunday. This is a civic duty in documentary form.
Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press (2017)
Run Time: 95 mins. | IMDb Rating: 6.5/10
Nobody Speak isn’t a perfect documentary. It meanders from the main (and tantalizing) story of Peter Thiel’s war on Gawker to smaller tales of a newspaper in Nevada getting bought out by billionaires with agendas. The latter half of that story is a tale as old as time (just look up William Randolph Hearst and Rupert Murdoch).
But the main storyline — Peter Thiel using Hulk Hogan as the way to revenge kill Gawker for outing his sexuality — is spellbinding storytelling that serves as one of the greatest tests of the first amendment in the modern era.
American Factory (2019)
Run Time: 110 mins. | IMDb Rating: 7.4/10
This year’s winner for Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars — and Barack and Michele Obama’s first film project — is a fascinating look at how real-life is effected by economics and politics. American Factory takes a dive into a Chinese company, Fuyao (a glass company), opening up a facility in an old auto-factory in Ohio.
The fly-on-the-wall documentary follows American factory workers and their Chinese counterparts through their experience of working in a globalized marketplace. It’s an eye-opening look at the stark reality of our global economy, viewed from the ground level with the actual people living it.
Knock Down The House (2019)
Run Time: 87 mins. | IMDb Rating: 6.9/10
Knock Down The House takes a look at how progressives made moves after Trump’s 2016 win. The film follows the campaigns of four outsider women — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush, and Paula Jean Swearengin — as the fight to gain seats in the House of Representatives during the 2018 election cycle.
The support and endorsement from Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress helped propel these candidates to the national stage, highlighted by Ocasio-Cortez’s victory. The overall film is a great lesson in how grassroots politics can work.
The Unknown Known (2013)
Run Time: 103 mins. | IMDb Rating: 7/10
This Errol Morris documentary is harrowing. The film was cobbled together from 33 hours of interviews with former U.S. Secretary of Defense (and former member of Congress and former advisor to republican presidents) Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld offers a window into the thinking process of military-industrial complex stooges at the highest ranks of the American political system.
It’s hard to watch as Rumsfeld smiles and laughs about American expansionism (wherein untold millions perished in for-profit wars) through the guise of protecting American citizens. And that’s not even the main part of the documentary. This film serves as a fascinating and frightening look into how a conservative and very capitalistic mind functions while making continual excuses for war crimes.
Run Time: 94 mins. | IMDb Rating: 6.9/10
This film feels like a time-capsule to a completely different time. Mitt chronicles the life and times of now Republican senator from Utah who was then a Republican senator from Massachusetts as he tries to become president in 2008 and 2012.
The 2008 section of the film is a bread-and-butter political drama as Romney faces off against John McCain for the GOP nomination and loses. The 2012 portion of the film — where Romeny wins the nom but losses to incumbent Barak Obama — is more personal and, well, tragic as personal issues start plaguing the nominee’s life.
The Great Hack (2016)
Run Time: 114 mins. | IMDb Rating: 7/10
The way we receive information has changed dramatically since the advent of social media. The ability for foreign actors — and even just bad actors in the private sector — to poison the well of thought has increased exponentially. The Great Hack shows that for-profit social media platforms have almost no intention of stopping the tidal wave of lies poisoning our brains (this has been confirmed in the following years over and over again).
They accomplish by looking at how groups like Cambridge Analytica used our data to promote massive misinformation campaigns around the U.K.’s Brexit and the 2016 U.S. Presidental election. It’s fascinating, sure. But, really, this is an indictment of how social media masquerades under the banner of “freedom of speech” purely to get hold of our data and sell it to the highest bidder.