Documentaries surge back to relevance thanks to streaming, diversity

The term “documentary” doesn’t necessarily stir up as much excitement as “movie” does by a long shot. Movies evoke excitement, escapism and — let’s be realistic — binge-watching on the couch with friends on a Friday night because you were too cheap to pay cover at Lucy’s. “Documentary” brings back junior high history class, where my curmudgeon old teacher would wheel out an equally-as-old television set and pop in an outdated VHS that was actually a History Channel special taped over an episode of “Days of Our Lives.” Not much fun.

I would definitely rather shell out 13 bucks to see dancing technicolored trolls than watch Al Gore prove to me that I’m helping melt the ice caps and kill the polar bears. But tough-selling documentaries of the past have been remedied by rising power of streaming services.

Watching Al Gore talk environment doesn’t seem so bad when I’m only paying approximately a Chipotle bowl’s worth of money for a massive library of titles at my fingertips. Watching documentaries is becoming less of a homework assignment and more of a way to keep informed on topics that mainstream media may tend to pass over. Bring it on, Gore.

The Netflix era has helped rekindle documentary filmmakers’ confidence in knowing that there’s a willing and interested audience out there to consume their message, whether they’ll be watching from a dimmed theater or living room, and this year’s Best Documentary Oscar nominees prove that point. Even more notable, this year’s nominees are also the most racially diverse of any category in history — a record four out of five of the directors are African-American.

This year’s crop of nominees number more than any other previous slate of documentary nominees. Not only that, but they deal strictly with topics that have become pinnacle issues for liberal-minded Americans in particular. Racial tensions, immigration crises and children with autism are the main focuses of the five films: “O.J.: Made in America,” “13th,” “I am Not Your Negro,” “Fire at Sea,” and “Life, Animated.” While we all know by now that Hollywood skews pretty left these days, none of these movies seem like they’ll be on Trump’s watch list any time soon.

Roger Williams, the director of “Life, Animated” told the Los Angeles Times: “The documentary community has been about covering stories that don’t get covered much in the mainstream media, and I think we are much more open to issues of otherness.”

These “issues of otherness” the nightly news tends to not delve too deep into shine in the documentary format, where the filmmaker can take their own stance and welcome audiences into their perspective. To approach the polarizing topics of racism, immigration and autism via a film instead of a newscast is a much more engaging way of informing an audience of a particular viewpoint.

The boost in documentary viewership combined with Hollywood’s new attitude towards tougher topics has given documentaries new legs. This is a definite change from being the “starving artist” of film, but another marked change is shifting in nominees given last year’s #OscarsSoWhite. According to data from Statista, documentary viewership on television is up from 70 million in 2009 to 94 million in 2016.

“O.J.” is streaming on Hulu, “13th” is on Netflix and “Life, Animated” is on Amazon. Stream away, streamers.

Lilly Stuecklen is a junior television, radio and film major. Her column appears weekly in Pulp. She can be reached on Twitter @Stuecks or by email at


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