12 Documentaries to Watch If You Want to Stay Woke
If November's election taught us anything, it's the importance of being informed and involved — no matter party affiliation. Thankfully politics are more universally accessible than ever before, in part because of a new wave of highly relevant documentaries.
Following trends toward educational and activist entertainment, this medium has emerged as a powerful method of educating a large audience about our country's most pressing issues. Whether you're looking to learn more yourself or simply need somewhere to direct the less-than-woke people in your life, check out these highly relevant (and beautifully made) documentaries, each available via streaming.
Ava DuVernay's 13th documentary is the kind of material that school textbooks should (but aren't) made of: a striking exploration of the relationship between slavery and the modern-day prison industrial complex. The documentary covers several stories about African American people, including those about Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin, and ties the pieces together in a way that illuminates how prejudices can drive political decision-making. It's hard to watch, but only because it's deeply truthful and heartbreakingly illuminating.
Audrie & Daisy
Audrie & Daisy also looks at the national epidemic of sexual assault but through a high school lens. Both Audrie Pott and Daisy Coleman were teen victims of sexual assaults committed at high school parties in their home towns. The documentary thoroughly covers both stories, offering a compassionate look at this type of assault — as well as the revictimizing, and potentially deadly, fallout from speaking out.
The Hunting Ground
The issue of college campus sexual assault deserves all the attention it can get, especially in light of recent cases like that of Stanford's Brock Turner. The Hunting Ground is what the New York Times called "documentary advocacy cinema" and offers a powerful view into the struggles of campus sexual assault victims by putting faces, voices, and personalities to these crimes.
The story told in Shenandoah — a film that explores the brutal murder of a Mexican farmhand in small-town America — shines a light on the systemic racial prejudices and anti-immigrant sentiments in working-class America. The documentary focuses on the 2008 murder of Luis Ramirez by four white high school football players in the former coal-mine town of Shenandoah, PA, and the subsequent attempt by local police to cover up the crime and protect the boys from prosecution.
Requiem For the American Dream
Four years of long-form documentary interviews with Noam Chomsky set the stage for this discussion about the death of the American dream. The poignant and timely film exposes the many ways in which wealth and power are concentrated into the hands of the rich, creating an imbalance of money and influence.
Before the Flood
In Before the Flood, Leonardo DiCaprio investigates the pressing global issue of climate change. The Oscar-winning actor leads the audience on a trip around the world, where he visits a variety of areas impacted by rising temperatures and discusses climate change with influencers including Barack Obama, Pope Francis, Elon Musk, and Alejandro Iñárritu.
We're Not Broke
We're Not Broke exposes the ways corporations use offshore accounting to avoid billions of dollars in income taxes — and how American taxpayers are left to make up the difference via layoffs and budget cuts. The film follows a group of discontented Americans attempting to bring attention to this corrupt and overwhelmingly problematic yet common practice.
This documentary presents an intimate portrayal of the people squashed by big business special interests. Hot Coffee takes a shockingly informative look at the vilified "hot coffee case" — one that exposes the influence that businesses have continuously wielded over the political narrative of tort reform and frivolous lawsuits.
Miss Representation is a thorough investigation into how the media creates and perpetuates unrealistic standards of beauty. Major female figures including Katie Couric, Rachel Maddow, Condoleeza Rice, and Gloria Steinem speak out on the relationship between the media and damaging gender stereotyping.
Frozen Planet: On Thin Ice
Even if you do believe in climate change (because duh), it can be easy to put the criticality of this global issue to the side. Frozen Planet: On Thin Ice takes a remarkably effective two-pronged approach to make sure that doesn't happen: Sir David Attenborough's knowledgeable exploration of the polar regions and the effects of rising temperatures on their inhabitants plus stunning visuals hammer home what's at stake.
Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret
This IndieGoGo-crowdfunded documentary examines the effects of animal agriculture — specifically that of cattle — on the environment. Cowspiracy also tackles systemic issues, examining the policies of various environmental organizations.
Wetback: The Undocumented Documentary
Wetback: The Undocumented Documentary introduces viewers to the hardships and dangers faced by Latin American migrants attempting to illegally enter the United States. The film features interviews with workers risking their lives to try to escape inhumane conditions in their hometowns, as well as commentary by US border patrol agents, Arizona minuteman project organizer Chris Simcox, detained migrants, and Catholic human rights workers.