Last Updated: February 5th
In Why I Write, George Orwell observed a trusim that transcends any era: “In our age, there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues.”
The dude nailed it. In 2018, politics has bled into every part of our lives. Racism, classism, gender bias, environmental degradation… the woes we face as a nation 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 lead us on the good fight for a better future. It has the potential to launch movements and, ideally, become a vital ingredient in the universe’s gradual arc toward justice.
In this high-stakes chess match — where the lines of good and evil can get easily muddled or even lost in the mix of opinions, facts, and actions — the onus is on you to stay informed. No one is going to hold your hand when it comes to navigating the topic, you’ll have to dig and dig until you find something that approaches the truth.
To start your excavation, check out these ten great political documentaries currently streaming on Netflix.
11/8/16 follows more than a dozen stories across America on that wild election day when Donald Trump upset Hillary Clinton to win the White House and usher in the Trump years for America. The documentary’s strongest points aren’t the triumph of Trump, but the personal stories of why people living and working across America — from literal coal mines to the beaches of Hawaii — voted for either Trump or Clinton. It’s a slice of life from a single day when some voters found unexpected victory and others suffered a loss they didn’t see coming.
Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal (2015)
Best of Enemies seems both quaint and groundbreaking at the same time. The 1968 televised political debates between conservative William Buckley and liberal Gore Vidal became legendary and the basis for almost all televised political discourse to this day. In the end, the right won the day with Richard Nixon coming to power. But it was Vidal’s calm ability to speak bravely when confronted with bigotry that resonates to this day.
Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press (2017)
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.
Welcome to Leith (2015)
Welcome to Leith is a harrowing look at a small town literally invaded by well-armed Neo-Nazis. The film follows Craig Cobb — a Canadian/American fascist — as he and his acolytes move into Leith, North Dakota, to take the town over, create a fascist electorate, and gain political power in the state. It feels more like a Vonnegut-level piece of fiction than reality.
Cobb chose a town with the population of 16 in hopes that the takeover would be easily executed. However, the people of North Dakota and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation rallied around the town to protest Cobb and his cadre of white supremacists. It’s a tension-filled saga of a small town, a devoted population, and invading Neo-Nazis.
Under the Sun (2015)
There are few films about North Korea, and even fewer that take as direct a look at the reclusive nation as Under the Sun. The film follows a small girl and her parents as she is indoctrinated into the North Korean state through school, pageantry, and the societal strictures of everyday life. Filmmaker Vitaly Mansky skirted restrictions by promising a positive film for the North Koreans. This gave him access rarely seen before. He left the camera rolling to capture his North Korean hosts’ efforts to reshape reality, control what made it into the final film, and shift how their country would look to outsiders. Later, he was able to take all his footage home and edit it himself. The result is one of the deepest dives into North Korean culture available.
Ava DuVernay’s look at the deeply rooted systemic racism is essential viewing. Named for the 13th amendment, 13th (our review) examines the laws and culture that have reinforced an oppressive system. 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.
Fire at Sea (2016)
Fire at Sea shows humans struggling with the decisions politicians make thousands of miles away. The film takes two tacts: It follows the locals in a small Sicilian village on the island of Lampedusa and refugees fleeing across unforgiving seas to escape failed states like Libya. The film doesn’t try to answer any big questions. It simply shows you how the actions of politicians can have a devastating effect on so many and, then, how that devastation spreads in almost impossible-to-perceive ways.
Karl Marx City (2016)
Karl Marx City offers a compelling glimpse at the aftermath of a surveillance state. The film follows documentary director Petra Epperlein as she tries to unravel whether or not her father worked with the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, and who drove him to commit suicide after fall of the Berlin Wall. The film is a compelling look at what’s left of East Germany, the Stasi, and how the tactics of that surveillance state are becoming an increasingly accepted part of our everyday lives.
Requiem for the American Dream (2015)
In Requiem for the American Dream, Noam Chomsky parses how and why the American Dream of progress from one generation to the next has largely been abandoned in favor of a system concentrating wealth amongst the elite. Chomsky largely draws on his own upbringing and the aspirations his parents felt when examining the state of the American middle-class today. Whether you lean more left or right, this documentary is essential viewing to get a grip on the problems created by wealth disparity.
Get Me Roger Stone (2017)
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 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.