There are few phrases in our current lexicon more misleading than “the system is broken.” Whether “the system” is referring to the American criminal justice system, the educational system, or the political system, the difficult truth to accept is that these systems all function precisely as they were meant to. Those who suffer the most, were always meant to suffer the most, and those who gain the most were always meant to gain.
Of course, it’s all more complicated and involved than that. If you’re unafraid to encounter more difficult and terrifying truths about American “justice,” and its long and still thriving, racist and classist history, here are 5 powerful documentaries you need to watch (again, and again).
Director: Ezra Edelman
The expectation might be that the film will focus on Simpson’s mid-1990s murder trial, where he faced charges of killing his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, and while that’s somewhat true, director Ezra Edelman wants to graft a much more profound and overarching narrative around that court case. And so we start at the beginning, the documentary returning to the poor Northern California community where Simpson grew up, quickly fast-forwarding to his first brush with glory and fame as he becomes a celebrated running back at the University of Southern California in the 1960s. 30 for 30 films usually concentrate on one incident—a classic game or playoff series—but not unlike ESPN’s portrait of the 1990s Michigan basketball team, The Fab Five, O.J. aspires to be a comprehensive biography. As such, O.J. is a seductive rise-then-fall narrative that will be familiar to those who know Simpson’s story. And yet, Edelman consistently digs deeper to find the telling societal detail or intriguing character quirk so that we feel like we’re relearning the athlete’s life from a fresh, thoughtfully considered new perspective.
If one initially assumed O.J. would devote the majority of its running time to the so-called Trial of the Century, then perhaps it’s also reasonable to believe the documentary wouldn’t spend many minutes on its aftermath. But it’s in keeping with the somber arc of this movie’s narrative that O.J. uses its fifth and final chapter to examine Simpson’s downfall after he was declared not guilty. This is no conventional riches-to-rags cautionary tale, though: The post-trial Simpson is portrayed as a man who lost his mooring, unable to win back the love of a public that used to be his unconditionally. It would be inaccurate to say that one walks away from O.J. feeling that its subject was misunderstood or got a bad rap, but Edelman recontextualizes his life so that we see it as a tragedy of his own making. Our complicity in that tragedy is our collective blind worship of celebrities and sensationalism—the movie queasily reminds us about how the trial was a triumph of emotion—as well as our unwillingness to grapple with racial inequality in this country. (Put more specifically, it’s white America’s unwillingness that’s especially poisonous.)
For all its greatness, O.J.: Made in America doesn’t revolutionize the formula as much as harnesses it for the athlete who would provide it with the most emotional and sociopolitical impact. From now on, whenever anyone asks me what 30 for 30 to watch first, I won’t hesitate to name this one. This might not be the greatest documentary in the series—but it’s certainly the most definitive of its format. —Tim Grierson
Director: Ava DuVernay
Perhaps more than anything, 13th highlights a severe lack of critical thinking and nuanced understanding on the part of so many American voters. Now that it is no longer in the interest of politicians to maintain the current prison system—the same politicians who helped build it and create it—does it makes sense for American voters to trust those same politicians and the same exact political system that got us here? Now that the language is changing (in the same way that it always has), do we trust those same people who have always been in control of the language we use to talk about black bodies and minds—and the methods we have of dealing with them (as if they are still pieces of property, meant to be dealt with, and parceled off)?
How did we arrive at this point in America? It sounds like a complicated question, but 13th embraces the difficult task of answering it. Just like any other nation, America is a product of its own history. Unlike other nations that have sought to deal directly with a dark past, either through reparations, or sincere reformation, America insists on merely redesigning its old, racist and oppressive institutions. Like some of the best documentaries of our time, 13th, therefore, is not just a film, but a demand; it’s a call to reject dangerous reiterations, specifically newer and newer Jim Crows. DuVernay’s work doesn’t expressly name what we might build in their place, but it demands that those of us watching resist the seduction of sameness disguised as slow progress, and imagine something greater (something the Angelas and Assatas and Freds imagined): actual, freedom. —Shannon M. Houston
Director: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David Mcmahon
The Central Park Five is such a moving piece of work, it is difficult to watch at times. Viewers are witnessing, for all intents and purposes, a modern-day lynching that actually took place in the ’90s. In his unflinching tale of crime, punishment, racial hysteria and ego, Burns holds an entire society, an entire way of thinking, accountable for its role in the true crime of the century—the collective effort to imprison five innocent young men. Journalists, critics, police, jurors, teachers and citizens who remained silent in the midst of strong evidence and gut instinct all participated in the destructive mob mentality that destroyed young lives. Although the story of the Central Park Five has a seemingly happy ending—in 2002 the men were exonerated when the actual rapist confessed—the warning is still there for our generation and for the next: Beware. —S.H.
Director: Erik Ljung
Of all the films on this list, The Blood Is at the Doorstep may be the most physically activating. Not only will you watch it, and never be able to forget the name Dontre Hamilton, but you’ll likely commit Nate Hamilton’s name and story to memory as well. And when you think of Nate, the brother of an unarmed, schizophrenic young man who was murdered by a Milwaukee police officer in 2014, you’ll know that there is no way you can simply sit around and be moved by stories of police killing. You must move yourself into action after The Blood Is at the Doorstep, because it as much a tragic story of an innocent man and the system that failed him (because it always meant to fail him, and others like him), as it is a portrait of a grieving brother-turned-activist. This film, which premiered at SXSW this year, is both an intimate love letter to the Hamilton family (who suffer, as well as persevere), and a loud, boisterous call to action. —S.H.
Director: Werner Herzog
Herzog’s film takes a hard look at the death penalty through the lens of a triple homicide committed in Texas in 2000. Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, then 18, killed three people over a car. Perry got the death penalty while Burkett, aided by an emotional plea from his father, only received life. As we all know by now, Herzog is a master of the bare-boned interview, and with his guidance, the subjects in Into the Abyss speak emotionally, profoundly, even poetically about their circumstances and their views—eventually shedding light on so many aspects of crime and punishment in the United States. The cycle of violence and incarceration in families and communities, the devastation of loss, and, perhaps most strikingly, the toll capital punishment takes on those people hired to carry it out—Herzog’s eye for interesting characters and empathetic touch as an interviewer turn an ugly subject into something unexpectedly vital. Herzog’s intention is never to push an anti-death penalty agenda, but it’s hard to imagine one could watch his film and not feel, at the very least, deeply conflicted about a position any different. —Maura McAndrew