Three Great Documentaries to Stream
The proliferation of documentaries on streaming services makes it difficult to choose what to watch. Each month, we’ll choose three nonfiction films — classics, overlooked recent docs and more — that will reward your time.
‘Hoop Dreams’ (1994)
Stream it on the Criterion Channel, HBO Max, Peacock, Tubi and Vudu.
With March Madness in full swing, it is as good a time as ever to revisit “Hoop Dreams,” certainly the best film ever made about the pipeline that takes young basketball players from blacktops in impoverished city neighborhoods to high school athletics and eventually college teams, with a promise of success that will elude all but a small few. Touching on issues of race, economics, education and exploitation, it follows the players and their families through the late 1980s and early 1990s. In sheer scope and by popular acclamation, it is one of the most extraordinary, compassionate and committed of all documentaries.
Directed by Steve James, “Hoop Dreams” semi-separately observes two teenagers from different neighborhoods in Chicago — William Gates, from the rowhouses of the Cabrini-Green housing project, and Arthur Agee, from the Garfield Park area of the city’s west side — whose lives occasionally intersect. Both are invited to play for St. Joseph High School, a well-appointed private Catholic school a 90-minute commute away in the suburbs. St. Joseph’s lures students with the expectation that they might become the next Isiah Thomas, an alumnus turned N.B.A. sensation. Thomas’s high school coach, Gene Pingatore, is still basking in that glory and is happy to name-drop “Isiah.” Pingatore lives in the apparent hope that lightning will strike twice.
But this isn’t a film about how Agee and Gates made it to the N.B.A. Quite the contrary: It is a chronicle of how their hoop dreams are deferred at nearly every turn, and of how the big-money machinery of institutional basketball cares little for the people it ensnares. The subjects’ fates are nearly always poised on a financial precipice.
When Agee, who has a partial scholarship, falls behind on tuition, St. Joseph’s forces him to leave, even withholding his transcript from his public school until his parents — a mother who has lost her minimum-wage job as a nurse’s assistant and a father who has just rejoined the family after grappling with addiction and incarceration — can cover the balance. His coach at his new school suggests that were Agee playing at the level St. Joseph’s had expected, money wouldn’t have been an issue. Gates receives financial help on top of his scholarship, but a knee injury sidelines him. Even after recovering, he is under pressure to play when he probably shouldn’t. A potential college scholarship hinges on an ACT score that seems just out of reach. His brother, whose own basketball ambitions were dashed, lives vicariously through him. And almost incidentally, Gates is a new father, determined to be better than his own largely absent dad, in a movie that has a lot to say about parents’ hopes for their children.
‘The Fog of War’ (2003)
Rent it on Amazon, Apple TV and Google Play.
Just two months after the start of the Iraq War, Errol Morris, at Cannes, unveiled a film in which Robert S. McNamara, one of the key American officials who oversaw the Vietnam War, reflected on that conflict with something like remorse. Although the documentary was about events that had occurred more than three decades earlier, it couldn’t have been timelier when it opened 20 years ago — not least because archival images of the polished, technocratic McNamara smiling and delivering sanguine news about Vietnam couldn’t help but call to mind then-current images of George W. Bush’s defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld, selling the invasion of Iraq, or because of McNamara’s assertion that the United States should not ever apply its military power unilaterally.
In “The Fog of War,” which went on to win Morris his only Oscar so far, the 85-year-old McNamara, the defense secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, tries to draw conclusions about his experiences during Vietnam and in World War II, when he was involved in the firebombing of Japan. (“What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?” he asks of that campaign.)
When it comes to Vietnam, McNamara is both reflective and deflective, suggesting that he was not the warmonger he was portrayed as and was instead primarily executing President Johnson’s wishes — and that had President Kennedy lived, he would have found a way to limit the conflict’s scale. (“I don’t think we would have had 500,000 men there,” McNamara says.) At other times, McNamara’s downplaying is less persuasive. “I’m not really sure I authorized Agent Orange — I don’t remember it,” he says, “but it certainly occurred, the use of it occurred while I was secretary.”
At the time, critics wondered if Morris was essentially having the wool pulled over his eyes. (It’s a familiar charge against the filmmaker, who faced similar accusations with his documentary on Steve Bannon, “American Dharma.”) But the portrait of McNamara is too complex to qualify as a simple exoneration. In one of the most jaw-dropping moments, McNamara recalls meeting in 1995 with Nguyen Co Thach, Vietnam’s former foreign minister, and being blindsided by Thach’s assertion that the Vietnamese had seen themselves as fighting for their independence, not as pawns of the Chinese or the Russians. How, Thach apparently asked, could McNamara not have known that? The premise for his entire war was wrong.
Morris went on to address the Iraq War head-on in “Standard Operating Procedure” and the Rumsfeld portrait “The Unknown Known,” both of which are in the news again with the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. But perhaps neither of them so directly confronts the issue of guilt, an emotion to which McNamara, in the film’s closing moments, declines to admit. “I’d rather be damned if I don’t,” he says.
‘Crip Camp’ (2020)
Stream it on Netflix.
Before she was a disability rights activist, Judy Heumann, who died earlier this month at 75, was a counselor at Camp Jened, which operated as a sleepaway camp for the disabled from the 1950s through the 1970s. The movie argues that the ties and friendships formed there — at a time when disabled teenagers had few shared spaces to connect freely and be themselves — laid the groundwork for the American disability rights movement, especially once several former campers gathered in the revolutionary ferment of Berkeley, Calif., in the 1970s.
Incredibly, the directors, Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht, who attended the camp himself, have footage of the campers as campers, in vintage material shot by a collective called the People’s Video Theater — which means there’s a pleasing then-and-now quality to the movie. Heumann is introduced at age 23 conducting a vote on whether the campers should cook lasagna on a Wednesday evening — a humble origin story for an activist who, among many other achievements, would help lead a multiweek sit-in in San Francisco in 1977 to ensure the implementation of federal protections for the disabled. (Lots of other Jened alumni are identified in images from that demonstration as well.) Much later on, Heumann became a special adviser for international disability rights at the State Department under President Obama, who is one of this documentary’s executive producers.
Heumann is just one of many campers we get to meet in this engaging, inspiring film. They include LeBrecht himself (who has worked in sound design) and the couple Neil Jacobson and Denise Sherer Jacobson. Denise tells the story of how she chose to pursue a master’s degree in human sexuality after she unnecessarily had her appendix removed, because a doctor had failed to consider that a patient with cerebral palsy just might have a sexually transmitted disease.
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