As the need to stay in urgently rises, so does the number of titles you need to add to your streaming list. If you’ve got television fatigue and feel like your brain is slowly dissolving into a ball of mush from all the reality shows you’ve been watching, it might be time to pivot your viewing choices and opt for documentaries instead.
On HBO alone, you’ll find captivating films covering everything from the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes, to the deep-seeded scheme to rig the McDonald’s Monopoly game in the ’90s, to the Baltimore protests that erupted after the death of Freddie Gray. Learn while you watch and emerge from quarantine still a couch potato, but an informed one.
At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal (2019)
An emotional deep dive into the appalling story of how Dr. Larry Nassar sexually abused hundreds of female athletes, At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal examines how a broken system turned a blind eye to gross wrongdoings in order to prioritize winning. For more than two decades, Nassar served as the osteopathic physician for the U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team, as well as a physician at Michigan State University (MSU), despite numerous accusations leveled against him by female athletes. At both jobs, he abused his patients by improperly groping, touching, and penetrating them, excusing his actions as legitimate medical methods. Directed by Erin Lee Carr, the film covers Rachael Denhollander’s case-breaking 2016 account, which ultimately led to Nassar’s arrest and the reform of women’s sports forever.
Baltimore Rising (2017)
Filmed in the wake of the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died in police custody after sustaining injuries to his spinal cord during his arrest, Baltimore Rising addresses the systemic abuse of the Black community by police and gives a voice to the ever-growing movement demanding police reform. Covering Gray’s death—including how his six arrestors used excessive force and failed to properly secure him in a police van, causing him to fall into a coma—as well as the protests and riots that erupted in response and the unsuccessful prosecutions of the officers involved, the film, directed by Sonja Sohn, is an urgent portrait of anger, activism, and the power of both.
David Bowie: The Last Five Years (2017)
Just as its name suggests, David Bowie: The Last Five Years examines the final years of one of music’s most magnificent, enigmatic stars. After nearly a decade of silence following a heart attack, Bowie returned to the spotlight to produce some of the most important work of his career: The Next Day (2013), a masterful rock album; Lazarus (2015), a musical he co-wrote inspired by the character he played in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth; and Blackstar (2016), a jazzy record released on Bowie’s 69th birthday, two days before his death. Directed by Francis Whately, the film is a must-see for Bowie fans new and old.
I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter (2019)
Covering an unprecedented case that raised questions about whether one person can be held accountable for the suicide of another, Erin Lee Carr’s I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter presents a fascinating look at one of the most chilling and highly publicized stories of recent years. In 2014, 18-year-old Conrad Roy died by suicide in his truck after letting it fill with lethal carbon monoxide. When police discovered text messages on Roy’s phone from his girlfriend, 17-year-old Michelle Carter, that seemingly encouraged him to kill himself, a trial against her began that would forever change the justice system.
The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (2019)
Another explosive release from Alex Gibney, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley chronicles the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes, who swindled the entire world into thinking she was the next Steve Jobs while at the helm of her ultimately fraudulent health care company, Theranos. In 2004, Holmes dropped out of Stanford to start a company that she believed would transform the world of blood testing. Her marketing efforts were huge and her promises monumental, allowing Theranos to become a multibillion-dollar company, despite its technology being fundamentally impossible.
Leaving Neverland (2019)
Centering on the stories of James Safechuck and Wade Robson, two men who claim Michael Jackson sexually abused them for years when they were children, Leaving Neverland provides a shocking and hard-to-digest revelation about one of the world’s most beloved icons. Produced and directed by Dan Reed, the two-part documentary features harrowing interviews with Safechuck, now 42 (40 in the film), and Robson, now 37 (36 in the film), and their families that expose how the sustained abuse began, the effect it had and continues to have on their lives, and why they bravely decided to come forward with their stories when they did.
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006)
Examining the tragic effects of Hurricane Katrina through the personal stories of its survivors, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts has been heralded as one of the most important documentaries of our time. Directed by Spike Lee, the four-part project chronicles the U.S. government’s mishandling of the devastating natural disaster, which many speculated was especially slow and ineffective because the communities affected were largely Black. Following its release, one year after Katrina hit, the documentary won three awards at the 59th Primetime Emmy Awards, as well as a Peabody Award.
The story of how $24 million were stolen via the 1990s McDonald’s Monopoly game is almost too wild to be true. Executive produced by Mark Wahlberg, McMillion$ pulls back the curtain on how an unlikely mastermind stole the winning tickets and sold them off to family and friends. A scheme with ties to the mafia, it was so baffling the FBI itself was called in to help investigate. Featuring undercover archival footage and recent interviews with the lawyers, McDonald’s employees, and the game “winners” involved, the film is as unbelievable as it is entertaining.
Mommy Dead and Dearest (2017)
If you were a fan of Hulu’s true-crime narrative series The Act, which was based on the horrific murder of Dee Dee Blanchard by her daughter, Gypsy Rose, and the even more disturbing details surrounding it, you won’t be able to pull your eyes away from Mommy Dead and Dearest. Directed by Erin Lee Carr, the documentary recounts the true story of how a mother with Munchausen by proxy syndrome deceived and abused her daughter in ways so unspeakable that once unveiled led to her grisly demise. Involving child abuse, mental illness, and forbidden love, it’s a film that will keep you thinking long after it ends.
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