4 Political Documentaries Students Should Check Out

By Cade Anderson, Arts Writer


For those of us who feel overwhelmed by 2020 and the state of the world at large, a good political documentary can be a source of catharsis, not added stress. Educating ourselves through film — especially if that involves opening ourselves up to strong emotional reactions — can end up relieving a sense of helplessness or existential dread. For this reason, these four freely accessible movies are definitely worth a watch.

“Public Trust”

If you’ve ever hung out at a city park or hiked through a national forest, David Byars’ “Public Trust” deserves a spot at the top of your watchlist. The film — part political thriller, part nature documentary — balances stunning imagery of public lands in the US, the stories of the people fighting to preserve them and the terrifying reality that they could, in the not-so-distant-future, cease to exist.

I found solace in the documentary’s focus on unwavering local activism. Indigenous leaders in Utah and Alaska, hunters in Montana and lovers of national parks across the country are the protagonists of this story, resisting forces that often feel untouchable.

“Public Trust” painfully details the Trump administration’s elimination of public land in order to profit the fossil fuel corporations they’re in bed with — but the film also tells us that a different world is possible. It’s intense and immersive, and its importance in our current sociopolitical climate cannot be overstated.

Patagonia is offering “Public Trust” for free on YouTube

“I Am Not Your Negro”

It’s a daunting task to transform a famous racial justice scholar’s unfinished novel into a poignant feature-length film. But this is a mission that Raoul Peck executes gracefully with “I Am Not Your Negro.” Over protest footage and intimate clips of nature and urban life, Samuel L. Jackson narrates James Baldwin’s unpublished thoughts regarding the lives and deaths of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

More of a visual essay than a traditional documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro” takes its time. It aims not to enrage or expose but to offer a glimpse inside the mind of one brilliant Black activist, in the hopes that viewers might incorporate his legacy into their world-views. 

“I Am Not Your Negro” is available on Netflix. Additionally, current college students and public library members can access it for free through the streaming service Kanopy


“13th” opens with the statement that although the U.S. is home to only 5% of the world’s population, we have 25% of the world’s prisoners. Ava DuVernay’s jarring look at the prison industrial complex and its weaponization against Black Americans has been trending on Netflix since the onset of the racial justice protests this May.

It’s a powerful exploration of how one clause in the Thirteenth Amendment — the loophole that slavery and involuntary servitude are illegal “except as a punishment for crime” — affects the justice system today. Black scholars illuminate how political powers from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton have manufactured a cultural fear of crime to widen the prison system and use Black Americans for cheap labor. The film is just as radicalizing as it is easy to understand.

“13th” is available on Netflix and it’s free on YouTube

“Knock Down the House”

Rachel Lears’ Sundance documentary follows four high-spirited, working-class women — including bartender-turned-Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — who are sponsored by grassroots campaign efforts to replace established incumbents in the 2018 Democratic primary elections.

The emotional rollercoaster that followed took me by surprise. It’s a fun and powerful narrative built from real campaign footage and vulnerable conversations between the candidates, their loved ones and the communities they want to represent on Capitol Hill.

“Knock Down the House” spotlights a grassroots firepower that refuses to accept the notion that our national lawmakers must always be guided by ego trips and under-the-table deals that screw over the rest of us. If you want a political documentary that makes you feel genuinely excited after watching, this one is for you.

“Knock Down the House” is available on Netflix and it’s free on YouTube.


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