DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary film festival, just wrapped its eleventh annual showcase of the best in nonfiction filmmaking of the past year. See below for our picks of must-watch films, most of which are now or soon will be available on your various streaming or cable services.
A brilliant chronicling of two creatives with vastly different personalities trying to collaborate on a play that holds overwhelming significance. One is Sierra Leone’s most famous expatriate; London-based journalist Sorius Samura. The other Charlie Haffner, Sorius’ one-time mentor and sometime hero. With a strong narrative bent, combining humor, suspense, drama, pathos, and hope, “Sing Freetown” is not your average documentary
A seminal event in New York state history was the overtaking of Attica State Prison by inmates in 1971. Told from the perspective of former inmates who participated in the uprising, and families of the guards who worked there, filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s compelling retelling is a must-see even with its many very hard to watch moments.
“Subject of Desire”
Using the 2018 Miss Black America Pageant as its entry point, “Subject of Desire” is an insightful, thoughtful argument about the ways that the idea of beauty has been weaponized against Black women and girls throughout history in order to deny them access to power.
Legendary Harlem Renaissance photographer James Van Der Zee perfected the art of capturing Black people and their lives with great dignity at a time when the world generally afforded them little. Told through the eyes of a man who found a photo of his beloved grandfather that was taken by the storied photographer, “The Photograph” is a thought-provoking travelogue through Harlem, a world unto its own.
“Bree Way: Promise, Witness, Remembrance”
Painter Amy Sherald asked Breonna Taylor’s fiance permission to use the engagement ring he never got to officially put on Taylor’s finger, in her portrait of the young woman tragically murdered in her bed by Kentucky police. Filmmaker Dawn Porter features Sherald and Taylor’s mother and other family members to paint a touching portrait of the people Taylor touched both when she lived as well as when she died.
“Kevin Garnett: Anything Is Possible”
You’ll smile until your cheeks hurt… then you’ll cry. A masterful study of the importance of teamwork, the skill involved in crafting team dynamics for success, and the limitless talent and charisma of Kevin Garnett, one the most authentic individuals to ever hit the hardwood. Featuring Doc Rivers, Bill Russell, Paul Pierce, Danny Ainge, Isaiah Thomas, and many more.
“The Rumba Kings”
A pleasing look at the growth of Congolese Rumba, as its namesake African country neared the official end of Belgium’s official colonial rule. The doc illustrates how the musical style instilled a much needed sense of pride to a people brutalized by the Belgian regime. A plethora of archival photos, insightful commentary from Congolese music journalists, and extensive footage of musical performances make this a rich and rewarding watch.
“Punch 9 For Harold Washington”
A timely look at the election of Chicago’s first Black mayor in 1983, and the reaction of the entrenched political machine bent on stymying any and all of Washington’s initiatives; a political playbook eerily similar to that used in D.C. after the election of Barack Obama, America’s first Black president. Washington improbably overcame his antagonists and went on to being one of America’s most widely celebrated political figures.
“Grandpa Was An Emperor”
Reggae legend Bob Marley, who had great respect for Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, helped save the royal’s great-granddaughter’s life when she was a young girl. Now she takes us with her on a painful journey back in time as she recalls how a coup resulted in many members of her family, including her father, being executed and many others jailed for many years.
“The Slow Hustle”
Actress Sonja Sohn (The Wire) directed and co-produced this troubling look at how the Baltimore Police Department, and the city’s political machine, mishandled the investigation of the on-duty death of one of their own.
Highlighting the importance of access in successful outcomes, “Citizen Ashe” is an engaging portrait of one of the most important and beloved figures in American sports history: Arthur Ashe, who literally grew up on a tennis court.
“Black and Missing”
Produced by journalist Soledad O’Brien, this four-episode series chronicles the work of the Black and Missing Foundation, created to address the neglectful manner in which media and law enforcement treat missing Black girls and women. Also retraces cases such Relisha Rudd, Tameka Houston, Pam Butler, and others, and the herculean efforts involved with getting them on the radars of mainstream media. Also features John Walsh, Glenn Kushner.
“Summer of Soul”
Produced by Questlove, most of the footage in this rousing documentary is over 50 years-old. The Harlem Culture Festival put on a concert in Mt. Morris Park in 1969, at the same time as Woodstock, which took place some 100 miles away in upstate New York. While Woodstock became an iconic symbol of American music history, the Harlem Culture Festival was quickly pushed aside and forgotten until now. Featuring Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Fifth Dimension, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and many other legendary American musicians, it is intercut with present-day commentary from some of the performers and attendees themselves. The footage of Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson singing “Precious Lord” will give you chills. An absolute must-see.