Ever since the success of Michael Moore’s 2004 documentary masterpiece “Fahrenheit 9/11,” many filmmakers since have went onto to direct many political documentaries all in hopes of shaping the election, but in the 2016 election the result of the unpredictable and unprecedented victory of Donald Trump ended up creating an array of political documentaries searching for answers to what led to the upset win for Donald J. Trump. These last four years has generated a lot of evidence, revelations, and undeniable truths in what shaped the outcome of the 2016 election which has now led us to an even more polarizing election this year. With documentaries about data manipulation by big tech companies like Facebook and online digital consulting firms such as Cambridge Analytica, to documentaries about the onslaught on democracy and voting rights, to hurried documentaries about the mishandling of the Coronavirus, to even documentaries about historical icons like the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, these ten essential political documentaries below examine categorically in what is at stake in the last weeks leading up to the 2020 election between Donald Trump vs. Joe Biden. The fundamental topics explored in these necessary docs defy partisanship, and they are issues that should matter to any voter who cares about election integrity, public safety, voting rights, human rights, and hopefully paving our country into a more humane and functional society. Here are ten outstanding documentaries to watch just before the 2020 Election.
All In: The Fight for Democracy (d. Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortes)
Often you hear from detractors of the democratic process in America state “America is a Republic, not a Democracy,” and they are correct. The history of voter suppression indeed began with the Founders, who wrote into the Constitution that the requirements to vote were only male and a landowner, which only ended up allowing 6 percent of the population to vote. The movie gives rich insights into the Civil War amendments that granted African Americans to vote, which ended up leading to greater suppression of voting rights over the years with political intimidation, violence, and regressive Jim Crow laws.
From the decade protests of women fighting for the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment–which ended up getting ratified to only white women in 1920, to more protests all the way to the Selma march in 1965 where Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for the passage of the Voting Rights Act, with mandated oversight voter protection laws for minorities. Yet, that even dismantled after conservative appointees Supreme Court led by John Robert’s overturned key components of the Voting Rights Act, which led to greater restrictions and decreased voter turnout that has occurred for the last 10 years from Voter ID laws, voting purges, and closure of polling precincts in vicinities where minorities reside. The film also examines the concept of gerrymandering, that allows politicians to draw their own districting laws that give their party more legislative power.
The face of the documentary is 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who ran against Brian Kemp, the Republican Secretary of State who carried on the draconian voter suppression throughout the state of George that led to Kemp winning by a narrow margin. With much talk on discrediting mail-in and absentee voting, along with many other talks of “poll watchers,” it appears the routine dirty-tricks will still be at play in the 2020 election. Filmmakers Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortes’ documentary will certainly give you deep anxiety and hysteria about the fate of our democracy, but sometimes galvanization can lead to more people getting empowered and turning into much needed votes this election season. (Amazon Prime)
Alt-Right: Age of Rage (Adam Bhala Lough)
An eye-opening look at the toxic idealism of the “alt-right” movement being taken to extremes and how it has led to a turbulent time in modern US history. The “alt-right” movement was a radical movement that tried repackaging and rebranding white supremacy as something hip, intellectual, and normal. One of the movement’s leaders, Richard Spencer, generated a huge movement and followed off 4-Chan and YouTube. He ended up putting the alt-right into the national spotlight with his “Unite the Right” rally that ended in tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia. His political call-for-action ended up becoming more tragic than even he could anticipate. The film also focuses on longtime anti-fascist activist Daryle Lamont Jenkins who openly condemns the inflammatory rhetoric of white supremacist’s.
Filmmaker Adam Bhala Lough uses compelling parallel interviews highlighting the history of Jenkins’ anti-racist activism, that also shows the political origins of the alt-right. The film also includes a fascinating interview with Southern Poverty Law Center writer and member Mark Potok, who gives essential and vital commentary on what led us to such division and racism. The film also shows in tragic detail the events that led to the tragic date in 2017 — in which Heather Heyer- a counter-protester of the “Unite the Right” rally was run over and killed by an alt-right activist during the chaotic upheaval. “Alt Right: The Age of Rage” is certainly a riveting and pivotal documentary that will hopefully be a learning lesson in the near future. (Netflix)
The Brainwashing Of My Dad (d. Jen Senko)
Jen Senko’s political documentary is up there with “The Edge of Democracy” as being one most personal political documentaries you will ever see. Not only does she perfectly examine American’s addiction to hard right-wing propaganda that not only consists of Fox News, but how it’s plagued the airwaves with talk radio and now the internet, and the largest tragedy of the film is how it preys on the elderly. Senko does an exceptional job in getting interviews to back her commentary up including Noah Chomsky, David Brock, and former Fox News commentator Jeff Cohen.
Senko’s documentary is done with skill and grace. The saddest tragedy of the film is how Jen Senko explores how her father, Frank went from a former Kennedy-loving family man who was once very kind, that sadly became more hateful after he consumed so much fear and hate-mongering rhetoric after he started listening to talk radio and got addicted to Fox News. This also led to Frank forwarding right-wing emails to numerous friends and family on a daily basis that started a lot of tension within the family. By mixing clever animation done by Bill Plympton, along with many other informative insights that shows how hard right our nation has become since the John Birch Society days due to the regressive nature of endless propaganda. (Amazon Prime, Tubi)
The Edge of Democracy (d. Petra Costa)
Even though this film is about Brazilian politics and about the demise of Brazilian democracy which led to the victory of far-right Brazilian President Jair Balsanero, the themes resonate and echo the current political environment here in the United States. Especially during a time where disinformation, misinformation, baseless conspiracy theories, and other forms of hatred spread across our national landscape under Trump’s America. Filmmaker Petra Costa’s film is chilling and equally solemn– a tragic look at how far-right populism spread within Brazil, and how it’s occurring now across the globe.
One might ask how does this happen? Well in Brazil, with a sinking economy, and massive political corruption from its liberal political parties allows the opposing party the opportunity to rise and promise massive reforms that ends up with greater division and political turmoil. The film also becomes very personal as Costra recollects her own memories with old archival footage and photos of her family’s roots and activism in upholding the notion of democracy within Brazil, only for it to sadly slip away right in front of her with Brazil’s current political environment. “The Edge of Democracy” is an eloquent and fascinating documentary that should serve as a warning for all democratic nations. (Netflix)
Fahrenheit 11/9 (d. Michael Moore)
The documentary’s title is indeed a sequel to his 2004 masterpiece, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which played on Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel “Fahrenheit 451,” and it allowed Moore to explore the dangers of the Bush administration handling of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the misguided war in Iraq. This time the title is reversed, because that was the date when Donald Trump upset all news pundits and polls after getting elected as the 45th president of the United States. This is the sequel nobody anticipated, but it remains every bit as crucial as Moore’s previous polemics.
Instead of just focusing on Trump, Moore ponders in greater detail in what led us to such a dysfunctional political climate. Trump didn’t just fall from the sky, it was years in the making as Moore points out with his polemic thesis. Moore targets establishment Democrats for playing into the status-quo for too long, to President Obama caving into the establishment, to the disastrous Flint Water crisis, Moore points out how sometimes it takes a Donald Trump as the wake-up call to understand how much we really do take our democracy for granted. While certainly a cautionary documentary that raises numerous existential and uncertain questions on the fate of America, Moore does provide a shimmer of hope and change from activism of underpaid school teachers, to ordinary American’s now running for Congress against establishment Democrats, all the way to Parkland school shooting survivors turned gun safety activists that certainly proves hope can be discovered in times of dark despair. (Vudu $3.99)
Feels Good Man (d. Arthur Jones)
Remember when Pepe the Frog was charming and innocent before the popular meme character was turned into a hate symbol? Feels Good Man,” a documentary that is beyond heartbreaking, as it follows the original creator, Matt Furie from his origins of Pepe to it’s regression, which involved many court battles including one with far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who made money off Furie’s intellectual property by selling T-shirts and posters of Pepe the Frog. The film chronicles all the history and details of the creation, rise, and transformation of Pepe the Frog. Once the meme got widely mainstream, 4Chan users took the positive image of Pepe and made him very negative, hateful, and tragically a symbol for white supremacy.
Once Donald Trump started running for president, memes were created by 4Chan users as they even made Trump look like Pepe. Meanwhile, the positive, caring and sensitive Furie can’t comprehend how his creation has turned into such a symbol of hate. Despite all the distressing nihilism that the documentary exposés, the film is the perfect anecdote we all need right now. During a beautiful moment in the film we see Hong Kong Protestors transcend the image of Pepe during their protests as they fight for democracy, freedom, and independence. “Feels Good Man” becomes a flare for hope, and also a reminder that evil and hate never triumphs in the end. (Amazon Prime $3.99, Vudu $3.99)
Get Me Roger Stone (d. Dylan Bank, Daniel DiMauro, Morgan Pehme)
It is crazy to think someone as corrupt and as unethical like Roger Stone could still be involved with politics throughout all these years. This is an individual who was involved with Watergate, the election of Ronald Reagan, the 2000 Florida Recount, the birther movement, an InfoWars frequent guest, and is responsible for the populist uprising of Donald Trump. Roger Stone is a reflection of everything that is wrong with politics as he has been heavily involved with PACS, Super-PACS, lobbyists, corporatism, and generating more division.
Instead of just crafting an expose, filmmakers Dylan Bank, Daniel DiMauro, and Morgan Pehme instead use a cinema-verite style documentary that follows Stone around that allows Stone to do all the talking that reveals him to be the corrupt individual that he is with his own words and undoing as the documentary unravels. Even though many will not be able to tolerate the sight of Roger Stone for a 90 min documentary, it is still a raw and fascinating portrait of a sinister individual that’s been in the political discourse for decades. (Netflix)
The Great Hack (d. Karim Amer and Jehane Noujain)
This film is as gripping as any thriller as it should be biggest story of the last five years. Aided by some fascinating interviews, filmmakers Karim Amer and Jehane Nojain lay out the tragic story of how users allowed algathraims and data collection to only further misinformation and division during the last election cycle that is still apparent today. Everything from the Brexit vote, to other far-right uprisings in Brazil, the Philippines, and now the United States showcases how misinformation is a huge threat to our democracy and sadly echoes the patterns of other fascist movements during the 30s.
Sadly all this leads to Cambridge Analytica, the British data research company that began as novice and harmless political campaigns, and eventually was co-opted with an agenda and dirty shits has it build unethical “personality” questionnaires that eventually targeted millions of Facebook users with fake-news, outside foreign influence, and propaganda that targeted many undecided voters that ended up deciding the outcome of the 2016 Election which led to a narrow-victory for Donald Trump in many crucial battleground states. While the company went bankrupt–both morally and financially after they admitted their tactics to an undercover reporter–the damage has already been done as propaganda of division and hatred has sadly now reached a level of demoralization. (Netflix)
RGB (Julie Cohen and Betsy West)
An essential and moving portrait of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in her final years before her tragic passing back in October. Justice Ginsberg will always be championed throughout U.S. History for playing a crucial role for equality, freedom, justice, and voting rights. Now, with Donald Trump and the GOP controlled Senate back-tracking with their hypocritical broken promises of rushing in a new Supreme Court Justice just before the election, filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West do a terrific job in delivering an engaging documentary that not only celebrates a woman for her principles on and off the court, but one that is marked by bipartisanship and human decency. All around “RGB” should be a timely watch as it offers an irresistible blend of activism, politics and family that is constructed together so superbly that it will leave you longing for more RBG’s in the future. (Amazon Prime $2.99)
Totally Under Control (d. Alex Gibney, Ophelia Haratyunyan, Suzanne Hillinger)
Urgent and certainly essential during the tragic COVID-19 era, “Totally Under Control” unfolds less like a documentary and more like a riveting cable news story. Still there is no doubt this film should be commended for it getting released in such a timely matter where our democracy and public health are on the line in this crucial election. Crafted by Academy Award winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) that also features co-directors Ophelia Haratyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger deliver a sophisticated and engrossing expose how the Trump administration failed with their response to the tragic COVID-19 pandemic that is released in a prompt matter–just weeks before the upcoming election and the virus’ inevitable second wave of infection.
Done with passion and vigor, the film is very up with the moment. Even the end credits inform us how Trump contracted COVID-19, in which he sadly still downplays it today for his own political gain. While there will no doubt that there will be even more truths and revelations to be revealed with this administration’s incompetent and reckless handling of the virus, with even more individuals, staffers, and aides will probably remain coming forward in telling the American people the exact truth. Gibney and his directing team rushed out an important disclosure of a film that will hopefully open up more people’s eyes to the scandals and horrid decisions that are sadly covered-up by conservative media outlets and equally dangerous conspiracy theories. This is a reminder that everyone who has been following the pandemic outside the arena of Fox News and InfoWars will realize that our nation’s leadership failed us during a time where public safety should have never been politicized during the midst of a global pandemic that still carries on today with no national plan at sight. (Hulu)