12 True Crime Documentary Films that Explore Race, Prejudice, and Social Justice
Dear Badass Black Girl,
True crime is having a major moment, and psychiatrists have cited the "this could happen to you" factor as one reason for our current obsession with true crime stories.
I'm part of this ever-growing audience hungry for whodunit docs, and I trust that you will find the following list very satisfying as these documentary films advocate for victims' rights and shine a light on problems within the criminal justice system.
1. For Life (2020) on ABC. Inspired by the life of Isaac Wright Jr., “For Life” is a fictional serialized legal and family drama about an imprisoned man, Aaron Wallace, who becomes a lawyer, litigating cases for other inmates while fighting to overturn his own life sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. His quest for freedom is driven by his desperate desire to get back to the family he loves and reclaim the life that was stolen from him. Aaron’s complicated relationship with a progressive female prison warden helps shine a light on the flaws and challenges in the U.S. penal and legal systems.
2. Remastered: The Two Killings of Sam Cooke (2019) on Netflix. This documentary film is about Sam Cooke, the artist and activist, and the circumstances and controversy surrounding his murder.
3. Surviving R. Kelly (2019) on Netflix. This documentary series reveals young women emerging from the shadows and uniting their voices against singer R. Kelly. Celebrated as one of the greatest R&B singers of all time, R. Kelly’s career has been plagued with rumors of abuse, pedophilia, and predatory behavior toward women. Now, survivors are stepping forward to detail new allegations about his physical, mental, and sexual abuse. More than 50 interviews with those who include civil rights activist Tarana Burke, musicians John Legend and Sparkle, talk show host Wendy Williams, and R. Kelly’s family members shed light on the singer’s controversial past.
4. When They See Us (2019) on Netflix. In 1989 a jogger was assaulted and raped in New York’s Central Park, and five young people were subsequently charged with the crime. The quintet, labeled the Central Park Five, maintained its innocence and spent years fighting the convictions, hoping to be exonerated. This limited series spans a quarter of a century, from when the teens are first questioned about the incident in the spring of 1989, going through their exoneration in 2002 and ultimately the settlement reached with the city of New York in 2014. The cast is full of Emmy nominees and winners, including Michael K. Williams, John Leguizamo, Felicity Huffman, and Blair Underwood. Oscar nominee and Emmy winner Ava DuVernay co-wrote and directed the four episodes.
5. The Devil Next Door (2019) on Netflix. A Cleveland grandfather is brought to trial in Israel, accused of being the infamous Nazi death camp guard known as Ivan the Terrible.
6. Cold Case Hammarskjöld (2019) on Oxygen. Danish director Mads Brügger and Swedish private investigator Göran Bjorkdahl are trying to solve the mysterious death of Dag Hammarskjöld. As their investigation closes in, they discover a crime with even farther reaching consequences.
7. The Disappearance of the Millbrook Twins (2019) on Oxygen. In 1990, 15-year-old African American twin sisters Dannette and Jeannette Millbrook disappeared in Augusta, GA. Despite being one of the few cases of missing twins in American history, their disappearance gained little media attention. Law enforcement dismissed the girls as runaways. For decades, their family pleaded for help, but the case went cold. Now, former prosecutor Laura Coates and retired detective Page Reynolds examine the case in a search for justice.
8. Strong Island (2017) on Netflix. When filmmaker Yance Ford investigates the 1992 murder of a young black man, it becomes an achingly personal journey since the victim, 24-year-old William Ford Jr., was the filmmaker’s brother.
9. Time: The Kalief Browder Story (2017) on Netflix. The criminal justice system tragically failed 16-year-old Kalief Browder, who spent three years in Rikers Island jail awaiting trial—two of those years in solitary confinement—after being arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack. The case was never prosecuted, the charges were ultimately dropped, and Browder committed suicide after his release. His story and the challenges it poses to a basic understanding of American liberties are central to this six-part documentary. It’s a comprehensive review of the case, using first-person accounts, archival footage, and cinematic re-creations of key scenes from Browder’s life. Exclusive interviews with a wide range of people connected to the story, from politicians to close friends and family members to social reformers, are also featured.
10. OJ: Made in America (2016) on Amazon. The American documentary, produced and directed by Ezra Edelman for ESPN Films and their 30 for 30 series, was released as a five-part miniseries and in theatrical format.
11. The People vs. O.J. Simpson (2016) on Netflix. This is the first season of the FX true crime anthology television series American Crime Story. The season revolves around the O. J. Simpson murder case and is based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson (1997).
12. Shadow of Truth (2016) on Netflix. The four part documentary mini-series examines the mysterious murder case of 13-year-old Israeli Tair Rada and the subsequent conviction of a Ukrainian immigrant.
13. Ken Burns: The Central Park Five (2013) on Amazon. In 1989, five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem were arrested and later convicted of raping a white woman in New York City’s Central Park. The Central Park Five tells the story of that horrific crime, the rush to judgment by the police, a media clamoring for sensational stories and an outraged public, and the five lives upended by this miscarriage of justice.
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