A few months ago I posted a list of the 25 films that I thought best represented America. Someone then suggested that I make a list of the documentaries that I thought best represented America, which I thought was a great idea. So after much consideration (because there are a lot of great documentaries about American culture), this is the list I came up with: the 10 documentaries that best capture the intricacies and complexities of American culture. If an alien came to America and needed a DVD primer on what we’re all about, these would be the documentaries I would suggest. (In chronological order…)
Salesman (1969): This Maysles Brothers film about door-to-door Bible salesman is the quintessential portrait of middle class American capitalism in all of its comedy, tragedy, and ambition. It’s like Death of a Salesman except real. See also: Grey Gardens (1975).
Woodstock (1970): I had to include a music doc on this list, and there is really nothing better than Woodstock, the iconic documentary about the famous 1969 music festival in Upstate NY. It’s a treasure of American history and a paean to the tumultuous and free-spirited tenor of American culture in the Vietnam era. See also: Don’t Look Back (1967) or Gimme Shelter (1970).
Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976): Barbara Kopple’s seminal documentary about a 1973 coal worker strike in rural Kentucky stands as one of the most singular portraits of the blue collar Americana ever seen on film. Her unobtrusive observance of the thick-skinned residents of Harlan County, Kentucky is a valuable testament to a particular time and place in American culture. See also: The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936).
Sherman’s March (1986): Ross McElwee’s 1986 documentary began as a film about the famous Civil War general’s march to the sea and ended as a self-conscious study of romantic neuroses. Very American. See also: Bright Leaves (2003).
The Civil War (1990): Ken Burns is to American documentary what Ozu is to Japanese cinema. That is: he’s the master. Any of his films could have made this list (Jazz, Baseball, The War, etc) but I think the 11-hour Civil War is perhaps his most momentous achievement. And what is more American than The Civil War? See also: Baseball (1994).
Hoop Dreams (1994): This is the Citizen Kane of American documentary, in my opinion. It follows two young basketball stars in inner city Chicago over a five year period as they aspire to get college scholarships and make their NBA dreams a reality. It’s a film about much more than basketball, however. It’s about the American dream and the unfortunate systemic issues that keep that dream at bay for so many people. See also: American Teen (2008).
On the Ropes (1999): Before last year’s American Teen, Nanette Burstein made this amazing, intimate documentary about three young boxers and their trainer in New York City. In many ways it’s like Hoop Dreams: Boxing, dealing with similar issues of class and race and the American dream. See also: When We Were Kings (1996).
Spellbound (2003): A compelling narrative of 8 kids in the running to win at the 1999 National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C. It’s a film about competition, diligence, diversity, upward mobility, class, race, and a lot of American other things. See also: Mad Hot Ballroom (2003).
The Fog of War (2003): Errol Morris is one of the best American documentarians, and this film—a psychological portrait of former secretary of defense Robert McNamara—is a great biographical film about a figure that looms large over 20th Century American history. See also: Standard Operating Procedure (2008).
The King of Kong (2007): This is a fun documentary about nerdy middle-aged “gamers” and their obsession with world records, but it is also one of the most profound cinematic microcosms of Americana to hit the screen in recent years. See also: Murderball (2005).