The docu-summer of 2018
From a tragic pop star to a Supreme Court Justice to the Pope himself, this summer’s best documentaries explored the untold stories behind a wide-range of fascinating individuals. Check out the most exciting revelations from 10 of this season’s must-watch nonfiction features.
**WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD**
Oscar-winning filmmaker Kevin Macdonald uncovered a devastating revelation about Whitney Houston while tracing her life and legacy in his documentary Whitney.
The film’s most shocking moment comes when Houston’s former assistant Mary Jones alleges that Dee Dee Warwick, Houston’s cousin and the sister of soul singer Dionne Warwick, sexually abused Houston as a child. Jones said the alleged incident had a lasting effect on the singer’s life. Houston died at the age of 48 in February 2012. – Piya Sinha-Roy
Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s joyous doc, which premiered at Sundance in January, is an intimate, complicated portrait of the Supreme Court’s lace-collared crusader. The film tells the story of Justice Ginsburg’s decades-long fight for gender equality, her loving marriage, her years at Harvard, her friendship with Justice Scalia, her love of the opera, and later, her meme-ification.
The documentary sheds light on how far we’ve come with women’s rights and how far we have yet to go, and the scathing dissenter’s long journey to the bench ought to inspire young women especially. But Justice Ginsburg herself, in all her brilliance, compassion, and determination, is the real revelation of RBG. There’s a reason people call this woman notorious. — Mary Sollosi
Three Identical Strangers
The big twist of Tim Wardle’s Three Identical Strangers comes when we learn that a group of triplets separated at birth and then reunited 19 years later, were intentionally separated so that scientists could examine them for a long-term study (all unbeknownst to their adoptive parents). The results of the study remain sealed, so it’s unclear what insight the experiment will give to the nature vs. nurture question, if any. But the story suggests that individuals are messy and complicated, both as a result of their genes and their environments. Maybe some pieces of the human experience are unexplainable — and maybe, in some cases, trying to understand them does more harm than good. — Mary Sollosi
Most people will know Gloria Allred as the fierce, tenacious lawyer who often holds big press conferences and fights high-profile cases to protect women’s rights.
But the details of her past, and the sheer amount of obstacles she overcame to rise to the top, might not be familiar to most casual cable news watchers. That struggle is at the heart of Roberta Grossman and Sophie Sartain’s Netflix documentary Seeing Allred, in which Allred opens up about how the sexual assault she went through as a young woman led her on the path to fight for other women.
In the post-#MeToo era, Allred’s pursuit of justice becomes even more relevant as she continues to pave the way towards equal rights. – Piya Sinha-Roy
Photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield has always felt drawn to documenting the vast excesses and pitfalls of wealth.
From her 1997 book Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood, in which she captured the lives of Los Angeles kids including the then-unknown Kim Kardashian, to 2012’s Queen of Versailles, about one couple’s unfinished quest to build the largest house in America, Greenfield objectively looks at the obsession with wealth and glamour.
But it is in Generation Wealth, released July 20, that Greenfield finally ties together the threads woven through her years of work and reveals a new American dream. Gone are the days when people strived for a suburban house and a white picket fence — this generation has grown up seeing fame as the new ideal and as a nation, we’re paying the hefty price of that obsession. – Piya Sinha-Roy
Fashion scholars already know the story of Alexander McQueen’s meteoric ascent in an unforgiving industry, and the world already knows the shocking details of his death. Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s documentary about the influential designer focuses more on the man himself than on his creative legacy, but “Highland Rape” and “Plato’s Atlantis” are as essential to McQueen as the details of his working-class East London upbringing. With his brilliant work providing the dazzling backdrop for the arc of his short history, the scope of his genius hits as hard as the tragedy of his life. McQueen is a heartbreaking reminder that art is often borne from pain, and that beauty can be utterly savage. — Mary Sollosi
Minding the Gap
Filmmaker Bing Liu makes a startling and engaging documentary debut with Minding the Gap, which premiered at Sundance and was released on Hulu last week.
The film traces his friendship with two other teenagers as they grow up in Rockford, Illinois, bonding over things like their shared love of skateboarding. But over the 12 years Liu films himself with his friends Zack and Keire, he also captures the hardships they face as they enter adulthood.
The heartbreaking revelation comes as Liu and his subjects examine the irreversible impact domestic violence has had on their lives. Minding the Gap offers a glimpse into the nature vs. nurture debate and through Liu’s thoughtful lens, finds hope within his subjects. – Piya Sinha-Roy
Pope Francis: Man of His Word
Everything Pope Francis has done since ascending to the papacy has been something of a revelation. As if it weren’t enough of a shakeup for the tradition-bound institution that he’s the first Jesuit pope and the first to take the name Francis, he’s also something of a radical in the position, living modestly, showing compassion to groups that the Church has historically rejected, and embracing environmentalism, among other revolutionary stances. Wim Wenders’ intimate documentary, which gained remarkable access to the Vatican, reveals something new about the outspoken Pontiff, too: The Pope doesn’t just have a lot to say. He’s also a man of his word. — Mary Sollosi
Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood
Settle in for some serious tea-spilling on some of Hollywood’s biggest screen icons, courtesy of nonagenarian Scotty Bowers.
Back in Hollywood’s Golden Age, Bowers operated as a go-between for gay and bisexual stars and escorts, operating out of a gas station on Hollywood Boulevard.
In Matt Tyrnauer’s Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, adapted from Bowers’ 2012 memoir Full Service, the sprightly 91-year-old dishes on the secret lives of stars such as Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Rock Hudson, Laurence Olivier, and Katharine Hepburn, weaving colorful, salacious tales of a bygone era. – Piya Sinha-Roy
Won't You Be My Neighbor?
We don’t need a documentary to tell us that this is a fraught moment in our nation’s history, with political and ideological divides running deeper than ever between friends, relatives, and, yes, neighbors. In such a climate, as we’re bombarded daily with ominous headlines and ugly exchanges, it’s a much-needed breath of fresh air to visit with Fred Rogers once more in Morgan Neville’s documentary. In the summer of 2018, to see such compassion, imagination, and genuine goodness on display is nothing short of revelatory. — Mary Sollosi