“It feels different this time,” goes the optimistic if still cautious refrain since the killing of George Floyd beneath a police officer’s knee. Certainly, ongoing protests, often met with brutal, official overreach and sparked by Floyd’s death as well as the deaths of several other Black people during recent encounters with police, seem to have led to a sincere national reckoning. The below list of illuminating documentaries underscores how often change in America and elsewhere comes, when it finally comes, at severe costs to those who demand freedom. Most of these nonfiction films are not rated but contain mature themes and, often, real-world violence.
“Before Stonewall” (1984, not rated); “Stonewall Uprising” (2010, not rated): An arbitrary police raid in June 1969 on the Stonewall Inn, a Manhattan bar frequented by gay men, resulted in a historic uprising that helped launch organized, sustained efforts toward LGBTQ justice. (LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning.) Taken together, these two documentaries tell that compelling story. But they also offer deep, context-rich dives into the long, continuing history of America’s astonishingly cruel treatment of its LGBTQ community. (“Before Stonewall” on Kanopy, Amazon; “Stonewall Uprising” on Kanopy, Amazon, PBS.org)
“I Am MLK Jr.” (2018, not rated); “Standing on My Sisters’ Shoulders: Women of the Civil Rights Movement” (2002, not rated): “I Am MLK Jr.” explores the psyche of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., placing his thinking and strategies for political action into the context of his own humanity and will. We discover King as a man, terribly aware just how synonymous he was with a nation’s progress and the destiny of many. You’ll want to have tissues on hand for the magnificent “Standing on My Sisters’ Shoulders,” the story of African American women in Mississippi who took on savagely enforced voter suppression of Black citizens in the 1960s. “Heroic” doesn’t begin to describe what these great Americans endured to change the state and country. (“I Am MLK Jr.” on YouTube, Amazon; “Standing on My Sisters’ Shoulders” on Kanopy)
“From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock: A Reporter’s Journey” (2020, not rated); “Defend the Sacred” (2017, not rated): This double bill captures two stories of Native American defense of treaty rights from different eras. The first concerns the 1973 armed conflict between the American Indian Movement (AIM) and militarized law enforcement at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Over 71 days, hundreds of AIM members from disparate Indigenous nations hunkered down with weapons in what became a bloody war with the Nixon administration. “Defend the Sacred” is one of many excellent works about the thousands of Native Americans who converged on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota to prevent an oil pipeline from crossing through sacred land and endangering the tribal water supply. (“From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock” on Vimeo; “”Defend the Sacred” on FilmsForAction.org)
“LA 92” (2017, rated R); “Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story” (2018, TV-14); “P.S. I Can’t Breathe: Black Lives Matter” (2015, not rated); “Whose Streets? An Unflinching Look at the Ferguson Uprising” (2017, rated R); “Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland” (2018, TV-MA): Racist policing, official malfeasance and justice-inhibiting Stand Your Ground laws have been identified as factors, in varying combinations, behind the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain and other Black people. These five films or series — some methodical investigations, some raw archival footage — recall public revolts following the police beating of Rodney King, and the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Sandra Bland. (“LA 92” on Netflix; “Rest in Power” on ParamountNetworks.com, Amazon; “P.S. I Can’t Breathe” on Kanopy; “Whose Streets?” on Hoopla, VUDU, Hulu, Kanopy; “Say Her Name” on HBO Max, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube)
“Little Gandhi” (2016, not rated): Looking beyond our own borders, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad continues an endless, unconscionable destruction of his own people. “Little Gandhi” is a reminder of what Syrian hopes once looked like, and how a young hero and martyr, 26-year-old Ghiyath Matar, was the face of resistance in his country during the Arab Spring. “Little Gandhi” describes Matar’s advocacy of nonviolence and his enormous influence on the movement before he was arrested and tortured to death. (YouTube)
“NRA Under Fire” (2020, rated PG-13): School shootings at Columbine and Sandy Hook brought tens of thousands of Americans into the streets demanding gun control. But the political power of the National Rifle Association (NRA) has long made even the most modest measures an impossible sell in Congress. This film explores how the carnage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and the galvanizing activism of the tragedy’s young survivors, helped recast the NRA as a pariah — albeit a still formidable one. (PBS.org/WGBH/Frontline)
“She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry: The History of the Women’s Liberation Movement” (2014, not rated): Mary Dore’s outstanding narrative about the emergence of the feminist movement in the late 1960s and ’70s is enriched by archival footage and interviews with scores of pioneers from that era of protest and struggle for equality. Among discoveries for young viewers is how truly old school some of the revolution’s earliest tools (pamphlets, pre-Ms. ‘zines) were for organizing women across the U.S. long before the internet. (Amazon, Kanopy, iTunes)