13 documentaries to dive into this summer — on Netflix, PBS, or at the cinema
A Baltimore step team. Dr. Dre. A woman wrestler. Freedom of the press. This summer’s docs aim to entertain — and educate.
If you’re looking for deep dives into real-life information to go alongside the usual summer offerings of massive explosions and budget-busting superhero fights, we’ve got just the thing. There’s Stanley Nelson’s latest project focusing on historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and Step, the film about a group of girls on a Baltimore step team that netted raves at Sundance. Debuting in theaters Aug. 11 is Whose Streets?, the film from artist-activists Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis about the killing of Ferguson, Missouri, teen Michael Brown and the aftermath of his death. If the date sounds familiar, it’s because the film is opening on the anniversary of Brown’s death.
There’s a wide range of subjects to peek at this summer, both unfamiliar and not, with edifying works that will leave you a little bit more knowledgeable about the world than you were when you walked into the auditorium to see them.
Unacknowledged | May 9
Director: Michael Mazzola
Remember the warm, fuzzy feeling of hope and intrigue that you felt after walking out of Arrival? Well, Unacknowledged is a film about aliens too, although it will likely leave you feeling uneasy, paranoid and maybe more than a little willing to don a tricornered hat made of Reynolds wrap. Unacknowledged bears a tenor not unlike Alex Gibney’s explosive 2016 documentary Zero Days — they both set about to reveal things the U.S. government purportedly doesn’t want you to know, and in the case of Unacknowledged, it’s the government’s apparently vast secret apparatus directed at all things extraterrestrial. Assuming you believe in that sort of thing, Unacknowledged boasts footage of UFOs and, in an effort to distance itself from the inventions of supermarket tabloids, interviews with government officials. At the center of the film is Steven Greer, founder of the Disclosure Movement, which agitates to get the government to release whatever information it has about aliens and their contact with humans. This movie is now available to stream on Google Play, iTunes and Amazon Video.
Dumb: The Story of Big Brother Magazine | June 3
Director: Patrick O’Dell
In every generation, there’s a group of maniacs who insist upon rule-breaking, not in the name of some sort of principled stand for freedom but simply because they’re a bunch of roustabout, devil-may-care libertines. And that’s basically the characterization of the skateboard fanatics behind Big Brother magazine. The ideological predecessor and inspiration for Jackass, Big Brother was a chronicle of all tricks great and stupid, instructing its readers in the art of hell-raising, interspersed with the usual NSFW sex stuff about Big Brother-certified hotties. In short, it was sought-after contraband for teenage boys before YouTube, or The Man Show, or Tosh.0. The movie will be available to stream on Hulu.
The Defiant Ones | July 9
Director: Allen Hughes
Hughes (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents) followed Dr. Dre and Interscope records co-founder Jimmy Iovine for three years, resulting in a four-part HBO documentary that shares a name with the 1958 film starring Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis. Iovine was instrumental in the astronomical success of Beats by Dre headphones, and the two men’s professional partnership is one that’s netted many millions for both. Hughes’ look at their empire includes interviews with Dre’s protege Eminem, plus Nas, Ice Cube, Gwen Stefani, Tom Petty, Trent Reznor, Snoop Dogg, Iovine’s business partner David Geffen, and Bono. Promos for the documentary series have promised never-before-seen footage of recording sessions with N.W.A, J.J. Fad and Eazy-E.
City of Ghosts | July 14
Director: Matthew Heineman
One of the challenges of America-centered rhetoric about Syria and the Islamic State group: It’s generally framed as a discussion of how what’s going on there affects the interests of the United States. But City of Ghosts, the latest film from Cartel Land director Matthew Heineman, is a searing look at the people who are most directly victimized and terrorized by ISIS: other Muslims, particularly those who refuse to pledge allegiance to the group’s extremist ideology. Heineman’s film follows those who are risking their own lives to document and stop ISIS’s campaign of terror, and who risk the lives of their families to do so.
Step | Aug. 4
Director: Amanda Lipitz
If you liked The Fits, chances are you’ll enjoy Step, Amanda Lipitz’s look at a real-life step team providing hope, confidence and motivation to a group of impoverished Baltimore teen girls, which netted admirable buzz and even better reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. With a cast of compelling subjects, Step reels you in as the seniors on Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women strive to become the first individuals in their families to attend college.
Whose Streets? | Aug. 11
Directors: Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis
Even the release date of Whose Streets? — which coincides with the anniversary of the death of Mike Brown, the teen slain in 2014 by former Ferguson, Missouri, Police Officer Darren Wilson — makes a statement. Whose Streets is a story about not just Brown’s killing but also the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the violent reaction to news that Wilson would not be indicted for killing Brown. The story is told from the viewpoint of those who were on the ground in Ferguson — Folayan identifies herself as an activist — and serves as a counterweight to national media struggling to fairly and accurately cover the result of decades of injustice that came to define black life in Ferguson. After Whose Streets? premiered at Sundance this year, film critic Nick Allen declared it the documentary he’ll recommend when people ask about the Black Lives Matter movement in 50 years.
Wrestling With Chyna | release TBA
Director: Erik Angra
Even if you weren’t a consummate wrestling fan, it was nearly impossible during the late ’90s not to have encountered Joanie Laurer — although you likely knew her as Chyna, the muscular, 5-foot-10 star of the WWF, and wrestling’s “Ninth Wonder of the World.” Angra takes a look at the tumultuous life and career of Laurer, from her struggles to reconcile her career and physique with pressure to look and appear traditionally feminine, to the struggles with drugs that led to her 2016 death at age 46. Angra captures Laurer as a smart, self-aware, tortured figure, including footage of an interview with Laurer days before her death. Wrestling With Chyna is a sober look at one of pro wrestling’s most magnetic performers just as hype begins to surge for Glow, Netflix’s forthcoming dramedy series about female wrestlers.
Served Like A Girl | release TBA
Director: Lysa Heslov
In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion about the specific challenges many female soldiers face, whether it’s a military structure not exactly conducive to identifying and punishing perpetrators of sexual assault or the debate over women serving in combat roles. But less attention is given to female veterans returning from war. In her debut feature, which premiered this year at SXSW, Heslov follows the lives of five female vets as they compete for the title of Ms. Veteran America. Yes, it’s a pageant, but it’s also more than Miss Congeniality with combat fatigues: The pageant serves as a fundraising event for homeless female vets.
Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities | release TBA
Directors: Stanley Nelson and Marco Williams
For so long, education has held a particular significance in the black American community: valued as an engine of freedom, social uplift and economic advancement. While recent studies show education is not a salve for the racial wealth gap, Stanley Nelson and Marco Williams take an in-depth look at the importance of HBCUs, historically and culturally, beginning with the rise of such schools during Reconstruction. Nelson is perhaps best known as the director responsible for Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and here, with Williams, he delivers another chapter of black history on film, in the exact moment that chronically underfunded and undervalued HBCUs are facing new threats and uncertainty about their futures.
500 Years | release TBA
Director: Pamela Yates
Bursting with color and inspiration, 500 Years examines the aftermath of the conviction of former Guatemalan President José Efraín Ríos Montt, who stood trial in 2013 for genocide and crimes against humanity. The title draws its name from the five centuries of violent apartheid to which the indigenous Mayans of Guatemala have been subjected, a subject Yates examined in the 1983 film When Mountains Tremble and again in 2011 with Granito: How to Nail a Dictator. Now, the Mayans face new challenges as they assert their voice politically — namely, destruction of their homeland from multinational corporations seeking to mine the land and control their water with hydroelectric dams. Yates, a familiar and regular presence at Sundance, is an accomplished director when it comes to telling the stories of people living under repressive and unjust regimes. Besides her epic trilogy following Guatemala, she’s explored the subject in The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court, and in 2015 told the story of political documentary filmmaker Haskell Wexler.
Give Me Future | release TBA
Director: Austin Peters
Granted, a whole concert documentary about the electronic dance music group Major Lazer sounds, well, eye-roll-worthy, but Peters manages to sneak in more than a little bit of a look at Cuban youth culture and politics. Turns out Major Lazer was the biggest American name allowed to perform in Cuba in 2015, not long after President Barack Obama began normalizing relations with the country. Besides following Diplo, Jillionaire and Walshy Fire behind the scenes, Give Me Future offers a glimpse into what it’s like to live in a place that for so long has been largely immune to America’s most potent export of all: its pop culture.
40 Years of Rocky: The Birth of a Classic | release TBA
Director: Derek Wayne Johnson
Forty years after the release of the film that came to define Sylvester Stallone’s career, director Derek Wayne Johnson (Broken Blood, John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs) captures the actor and Rocky director John G. Avildsen discussing work on the most recognizable boxing movie of all time. Johnson brings a passion to the story of Rocky and Stallone that practically makes him the Ken Burns of the subject. Besides 40 Years, Johnson is also responsible for a biographical documentary about Avildsen and another yet-to-be completed project about singer-songwriter Frank Stallone, Sylvester’s younger brother.
Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press | June 23
Director: Brian Knappenberger
The result of Hulk Hogan’s 2013 lawsuit against Gawker Media was a chilling one for journalists. Financially backed by venture capitalist and PayPal founder Peter Thiel, Hogan sued the Nick-Denton-founded media company for invasion of privacy. With a $140 million judgment hanging over the company’s head, Gawker was forced to declare bankruptcy, sell itself to Univision and settle with Hogan for $31 million. Knappenberger’s (We Are Legion, The Internet’s Own Boy) film, which will air on Netflix, seeks to put the lawsuit and its fallout in a broader context: Thiel’s involvement in the case set a dangerous precedent. Don’t like what a news organization says about you? Find someone rich enough to help you sue them out of existence.