Watch + Learn: Social Justice Documentaries on Netflix

Media plays a huge role in not only how we see each other, but how we treat each other. Lately there has been a noticeable push to tell the story of marginalized people on the big and small screen. Which in my opinion is an effort to normalize and humanize people and their unique experiences and I’m here for that! Along with the tools and resources I share on social media I’m excited to share my favorite social justice documentaries on Netflix. 

These documentaries cover a wide variety of issues and make these complicated subjects a little easier to understand. I am often inspired by things I watch on Netflix and I think they do a pretty good job, generally speaking of developing thoughtful content. Right now they are running a Black Lives Matter campaign featuring this collection of films, series and documentaries. I appreciate that they’re trying to educate their audience about “the racial injustice and the Black experience in America.” 

LGBTQA+

Disclosure

Photo via Netflix

Disclosure is an in-depth look at Hollywood’s depiction of transgender people and the impact of their stories on transgender lives and American culture. Through stories told by trans activists, directors, historians, and educators like Laverne Cox, Yance Ford, and Susan Stryker. The documentary depicts violence against the transgender community, exclusion from society and abuses of education. This is one of the newest social justice documentaries on Netflix.

The Death And Life of Marsha P. Johnson

Photo via Netflix

Marsha P. Johnson was at heart of New York City’s gay liberation movement. This black trans womxn was one of the prominent figures in the Stonewall Riot of 1969, which was the start of the Pride Parade celebration. In 1992 her body was found in the Hudson River, under unclear circumstances. The NYPD ruled her death a suicide, however no formal investigation was ever done. The social justice documentary opens up the conversation on discrimination, police apathy and injustice.

 

A Secret Love

Photo via Netflix

In  a heartwarming look at love on the down-low in the 1940’s. This documentary follows a former All-American Girls Professional Baseball League player (think A League of Their Own) and her partner. Who keep their lesbian relationship a secret from their families for nearly seven decades.

Systemic Racism

When They See Us

Photo via Netflix

In 1989 Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old white woman was assaulted and raped while jogging through Central Park. In the days following the attack, five black teens from Harlem were falsely accused of the brutal attack. The prosecution painted these young Black boys as a violent, pack of animalistic teenagers. It’s not surprising that at that time Trump spent $85,000 on full page ads published on May 1, 1989, in The New York Times, The Daily News, The New York Post and New York Newsday with the headline “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY”.  As president he has doubled down on this statement when asked. This heartbreaking story shows the effects of systemic racism and how quickly the judicial system is to accuse black children of crimes. Ripping away their innocence and stealing their humanity. 

 

Strong Island

Photo via Netflix

In 1992 William Ford Jr, a 24-year-old Black man was shot and killed in a dispute with Mark P. Reilly a 19-year-old white mechanic, who claimed he was acting in self-defense. Reilly was found not guilty by an all-white grand jury. Years later filmmaker Yance Ford, the younger brother of William Ford Jr (and a Trans Male featured in Disclosure) investigates his brothers murder. Shining a light on one family’s heartbreaking tragedy this social justice documentary offers a sobering picture of racial injustice. 

Disability Rights

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution

Photo via Netflix
One of my favorite social justice documentaries on Netflix focuses on a summer camp! Down the road from Woodstock was Camp Jened, a summer camp “for the handicapped” in the Catskills, New York. During the 1970’s these teens would flee the isolation of their home lives to connect emotionally and physically with people like them. This eventually led to a revolution and the creation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). When campers reunited for the longest sit-in in history which included support from The Black Panthers. This documentary is educational and emotionally moving.  Plus, you know I LOVE Camp
 

Prison Reform

13th

Photo via Netflix

The film’s tagline explains the premise perfectly, “From slave to criminal with one amendment.” The documentary’s title derives from the 13th Amendment, which banned slavery—except as punishment for a crime. Filmmaker Ava DuVerny is joined by activists, scholars, ex-cons, and politicians who explore the history of racial inequality and how prisons are disproportionately filled with Black Americans. This Emmy award-winning documentary chronicles the criminalization of Black people. It was one of the first social justice documentaries I watched on Netflix.

Police Brutality

Let it Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 

Photo via Netflix

This documentary uncovers the police brutality endured by the Black community for a decade leading up to the Rodney King riots. It’s also a hard look at history for those of us born in the 80’s and too young to know or understand the racial climate of our country at that time. This is not a new issue. We’ve just been purposefully uneducated on these things.

LA 92

Photo via Netflix

This film was produced by National Geographic and only uses raw footage. Not only does it recounts Rodney King and Latasha Harlins stories. It juxtaposes them with the 1965 Watts riots which I knew very little about. The parallels are disturbing but feel familiar to what’s happening all over the globe today.

Education Reform 

Teach Us All 

Photo via Netflix

In the Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools were unconstitutional”. However segregation in the American school system still exists today through demographic inequality, specifically in Little Rock, New York City, and Los Angeles. This documentary revisits the story of the Little Rock Nine which is a story near and dear to my heart after meeting Melba Pattillo Beals as a teen and reading her book Warriors Don’t Cry

Teach Us All reveals how the U.S. education system failed on its promise of desegregation and actually slides back into a re-segregation. Most importantly it uncovers how this failure by the education system strengthens the school to prison pipeline. Which, like the 13th amendment is another legal loophole that keeps Black Americans enslaved. 

 

Criminal Justice

Trial By Media: 41 Shots

Photo via Netflix

I’ve mentioned episodes from Netflix’s show Trial By Media previously. I focused on the Subway Vigilante and it’s similarities to the Ahmaud Arbery case. Now I ask you to watch the episode “41 Shots” which focuses on the brutal killing of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo by NYPD officers in 1999. Diallo was unarmed and shot 41 times while trying to enter his own home. As usual, all officers involved were acquitted. This episode reminds me of the Breonna Taylor case, hopefully it ends differently although only 1 of 3 officers involved have been arrested so far. 

 

Time: The Kalief Browder Story

Photo via Netflix

Kalief Browder was a 16-year-old Black boy from the Bronx that was falsely accused of stealing a backpack. Kalief refused to plead guilty for a crime he didn’t commit. His case was never prosecuted and the charges against Kalief were ultimately dropped. But not before this boy spent three years in Rikers Island. Two of those three years he was isolated in solitary confinement. Let that sink in. Kalief Browder, a BOY spent 3 YEARS IN ONE OF THE MOST DANGEROUS ADULT PRISONS IN THE COUNTRY because he was ACCUSED of STEALING a BACKPACK!

Like many of these racial profiling cases, Kalief was told he “fit the description” and after that his life never looked the same. He was eventually released from prison, but he never recovered from his trauma and ended up taking his own life. This was one of the first documentaries that opened my eyes to the issues with the American bail system as well. 

The Innocence Files 

Photo via Netflix
Since 1992 The Innocence Project has been committed to exonerating individuals who it claims have been wrongly convicted through the use of DNA testing. This 501 nonprofit legal organization has been working to reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice. The Innocence Files shares the untold stories behind eight cases of wrongful convictions. 

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