When a book or news article isn't enough, we turn to well thought documentaries

As much as I like writing about issues that concern me, I know the subjects I cover can’t always be summed up well in a thousand words. Sometimes it takes well thought, well written progressive documentaries to illustrate a point of view thoroughly enough for the average person to understand.

While not always as informative as a well written book, documentaries usually contain important visuals, archive footage, interviews and a host of other methods to get a point across. While some might be construed as mere propaganda films, I’m more concerned with the facts being accurate.

There are many progressive documentaries worth watching, but for this article I decided to select documentaries each with its own different subject matter. Films that concentrate on the bigger issues rather than the important smaller ones.

5. Hot Coffee
2011. Directed by Susan Saladoff. Starring John Grisham, Al Franken, Jamie Leigh Jones and Barbara Liebeck

Remember that old woman in the 1990s that spilled her hot McDonald’s coffee and sued for millions? After she won her case, I bet you thought she won the lottery. Perhaps you might have been angered by this type of “frivolous lawsuit” (it was not a frivolous lawsuit)

Of course you were, that’s how the corporate media wanted you to think and it’s the raison d’être of this documentary. Hot Coffee explores the aftermath of the Liebeck v. McDonald’s case and analyzes the impact of tort reform on the United States.

Torts are civil wrongs recognized by law as grounds for a lawsuit. After Ms. Liebeck won her case, corporations launched an all-out campaign to get the public and politicians alike to go along with tort reform.

When you have all that money and misinformation at your fingertips, it’s no surprise that we now find ourselves with caps on the amount of damages we can sue for (even though the actual damages are often higher than the cap.)

The film goes into detail on how corporations manipulated people, politicians, even the election of State Supreme Court judges into passing tort reform laws. All in an effort to save money when they’re found guilty of wronging someone.

The film also goes into a gut-wrenching story about Halliburton’s use of “mandatory arbitration.” A way for corporations to keep employees from going public when the employer is at fault for causing harm to an employee.

4. The Fog of War
2003. Directed by Errol Morris. Starring Robert McNamara

The subtitle for the Fog of War is “Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.” It is basically the life and times of the former U.S. Secretary of Defense, but it speaks volumes about the military industrial complex and American war crimes during World War II and the Vietnam War, even if McNamara didn’t necessarily look at it that way.

The film covers his time working in the Air Force’s Office of Statistical Control under General Curtis LeMay toward the end of World War II. He states in the film that “LeMay was focused on only one thing: target destruction. I was on the island of Guam in his command in March 1945 …in that single night, we burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo: men, women, and children. Well, I was part of a mechanism that in a sense recommended it. I analyzed bombing operations, and how to make them more efficient”

The film goes into McNamara’s time as President of Ford Motors, but the main focus of the film revolves around McNamara’s seven year stint as Secretary of Defense during the height of the Cold War under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. McNamara goes into detail about the Cuban Missile Crisis and how close we came to total annihilation.

Regarded as the architect of the Vietnam War, McNamara never really states whether he felt responsible or guilty for it, but most of his “lessons” were taken from this portion of his life. 27,000 out of the 58,000 lives that were lost occurred under his watch.

Director Errol Morris interviewed McNamara for twenty hours for the film. It was released the same year as the start of the Iraq war and consequently may have won the Oscar for best documentary as a result. Either way, it’s a great film. Morris has since directed a similar film about Donald Rumsfeld.

3. Bowling for Columbine
2002. Directed by Michael Moore. Starring James Nichols, Matt Stone, Marilyn Manson and Charlton Heston

When Bowling for Columbine was first released, I remember never having seen anything like it in my life. It was funny, smart and downright scary right from the opening scene (receiving a free gun for opening a bank account.)

In a bid to understand why two troubled teenagers decided to shoot up their school and why gun violence continues to plague America, Director Michael Moore didn’t leave many stones unturned.

He starts by looking into the militia movement, but we soon find him examining the role American Foreign Policy plays in American Society. He looks at the fear mongering by our media and politicians, racism and the portrayal of blacks in society, and most importantly he talks to the victims.

One of the more moving aspects of the film was when Moore and two victims of the Columbine shooting went to Kmart to convince them to stop selling ammunition (which had been used at Columbine).

Unfortunately, less than a year after this documentary was released, it became synonymous with Michael Moore’s Academy Award acceptance speech where he criticized the Iraq War to a chorus of boos. Ironic seeing how his follow-up film Fahrenheit 911 was the top grossing documentary of all time.

2. The Corporation
2003. Directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott. Starring Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Michael Moore, Howard Zinn and Milton Friedman

The Corporation is hands down my favorite documentary. It is also my favorite Canadian made movie. In my opinion it should be required viewing in schools throughout the world.

The film looks at the history of corporations from a legal entity that originated as a government-chartered institution meant to affect specific public functions to how they’ve become the dominant institutions we have today with the same legal rights of a person.

The Corporation looks into corporate personhood which was achieved in 1886 based on the 14th amendment (which was actually a response to issues related to former slaves following the Civil War.) The movie criticizes all sorts of corporate behavior and explains step by step how profitable corporations can easily be diagnosed as psychopaths.

The film concentrates on certain examples such as Coca-Cola inventing Fanta to bypass the trade embargo on Nazi Germany. The privatization of Bolivia’s water supply. The suppression of the Bovine Growth Hormone story on a Fox News affiliate station at the behest of Monsanto. The film also looks at corporate social responsibility, limited liability and many other issues.

Along with archival footage, the Corporation is dependent on interviews from both corporate critics such as Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein and Michael Moore, but also corporate CEOs, free market think tanks and economists like Milton Friedman.

I saw this 2 ½ hour documentary in the theater and when it was over I was not the same person. This movie is mandatory viewing for any progressive in my opinion.

1. Inequality for All
2013. Directed by Jacob Kornbluth. Starring Robert Reich

As you can no doubt guess from the title, Inequality for All deals with widening inequality in the United States. The film stars former secretary of labor, economist, author and professor, Robert Reich.

The film examines the effects of widening economic inequality on American society. It starts off by showing us a graph in the form of a suspension bridge which shows inequality peaking in 1928 and again in 2007. Right before the start of the Great Depression and the Great Recession.

Reich compares the troubles of the early 1930s to the present day and finds a shocking number similarities between the two. For example, in both eras when inequality was at its peak, there was no oversight when it came to banking, political polarization in Washington was also it its peak, so on and so forth.

The movie does a great job of explaining what happens to a society, economically, politically and socially, when a country faces widening inequality particularly at the top. Reich also explains why inequality poses a serious risk to all Americans, regardless of income level.

To be sure, there are a lot of fantastic progressive documentaries that did not make my top five, but are important just the same. Here are some honorable mentions: Food Inc., Why We Fight, Capitalism: A Love Story and a movie I saw for the first time yesterday; Shadows of Liberty.


  1. Great list, Mike. I love every one of these. Personally, I would make a couple of additions:
    Loose Change (2nd Edition)
    A Patriot Act (Mark Crispin Miller)
    An Inconvenient Truth

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