The first movie my husband and I saw together was the 2002 documentary “Spellbound.” It is to his credit that, when I said I wanted to see a documentary about the 1999 National Spelling Bee for our first date, he did not run away screaming. (Later on, I repaid him by taking him to an animated shorts program that included Don Hertzfeldt’s “Rejected,” a movie that made him laugh so hard he ended up curled up on the floor of the AFI Silver. You can see it — the movie — on YouTube!)
The thing is, I’ve always had a soft spot for documentaries, but they used to be so hard to track down. They’d run for three weeks in some small theater, then vanish until it was time to screw up your Oscar picks because you randomly had to choose the one that sounded most like award bait.
And then: Netflix. This week I got to sit down and watch “13th,” Ava DuVernay’s (“Selma”) piece about the long — yet still direct — link between the ending of slavery and the explosion of the prison-
industrial complex, particularly when it comes to imprisoning African-American men. It’s an extraordinary film, quiet and deliberate in its condemnation of a system of oppression that has simply changed its means but never its ends.
If “13th” had gotten a theatrical release, I would have felt almost hopeless about its prospects — I would have written about it as enthusiastically as I could, but life would get in the way for so many people, and so many people would have missed it. Now, you just need Netflix, an open mind and a little under two hours.
In fact, I notice that when people ask me for Netflix recommendations, I often turn them toward documentaries. I start off with “The Queen of Versailles.” Then I suggest “Restrepo,” its sequel-of-sorts “Korengal” and “Man on Wire.” There’s “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” “Iris.” Interested in music? “What Happened, Miss Simone?” and “Muscle Shoals.” Food? “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” and “Food, Inc.” Feel like getting angry? “Kids for Cash.” Feel like getting hopeful? “Undefeated.”
“The Thin Blue Line” is on there; it’s a classic that helped get an innocent man released from prison. There’s “The Act of Killing” — a quasi-avant-garde piece about the Indonesian genocide — but there’s also “The Irish Pub,” a small, quiet film about that Guinness-based community institution. In fact, my scanning through titles for this column led to pretty much two reactions: “Oh, that was a good one!” or “Man, I need to see that.”
So the next time you click on that red screen, maybe skip the “Gilmore Girls” reruns (#teamjess), click the “search” box and find “13th.” That should lead you to another film you meant to see but missed, or one that you never heard of but sounds good. Take the time to make the space in your life for true stories.
More Reelists from Kristen Page-Kirby