HBO’s deep library of documentaries covers everything from Scientology to the West Memphis Three.
While Netflix has made big plays in the documentary world recently, it’s no secret that HBO has plenty of great offerings for doc lovers too. For decades now, HBO has been producing and acquiring fresh and important true stories about the odd, overlooked, and most compelling people you can point a camera at. Most of these HBO documentaries are available to stream right now on HBO GO and HBO NOW. The options are vast, but here’s where you should start.
The best HBO documentaries
HBO’s The Defiant Ones, a four-part documentary series, reaches soaring heights by getting vulnerable. Director Allen Hughes locates the necessary trust from the two towering men, masterfully finding their humanity. The intertwined stories of Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine are the tales of Beats headphones’ billions, unaddressed heartache, and big risks. Their stories are about everyone else, too, including the rock stars who show up to tell this story. You learn about Trent Reznor’s contract issues, Tupac’s moral dichotomy, Bono’s regrets, and the rise of Eminem. That’s just the beginning. —Kahron Spearman
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2) 4 Little Girls
Spike Lee is a great director, period. But he probably doesn’t get enough credit for the work he’s done in documentaries specifically. 1997’s 4 Little Girls was the first major evidence of this, and it still stands as one of his best in the documentary or narrative field. An investigation into the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that took the lives of four young Sunday school students, the film is a searing portrait of a landmark moment for the civil rights movement. 4 Little Girls may be the defining chronicle of this horrifying incident, and the doc includes an interview with former Alabama Gov. George Wallace that is shockingly frank. The most troubling thing about the documentary, however, is its continued relevance.
3) The Case Against 8
The Case Against 8 looks at the effort in California to overturn Proposition 8, which banned same sex marriage, while also following the first federal marriage equality lawsuit to reach the Supreme Court. Co-directed by Ryan White, who made this year’s Netflix series The Keepers too, The Case Against 8 is a key document on a recent historical event that we have not even fully grasped the importance of yet. Catch it now, before the upcoming Hollywood remake gets here.
Screengrab via YouTube/HBODocs (Fair Use)
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4) The Paradise Lost trilogy
Comparable to Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, the Paradise Lost trilogy is the rare piece of filmmaking about the flaws of the American justice system that actually helped enact real change. Centered on the West Memphis Three, each documentary in the series follows Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., and Jason Baldwin from their arrests to their eventual release from prison. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills came out in 1996 and covers the trials of the three men during their teenage years, when they were convicted of child murder in West Memphis, Arkansas. Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, which came out in 2000, examines the unanswered questions and irregularities of the case, most of which pointed to the conclusion that the wrong people had been put in jail. Finally, 2012’s Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, looks at the fight to get the West Memphis Three out of prison, a fight that was eventually won when Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin were freed in 2011. Joe Berlinger is a prolific director and a known master in documentary filmmaking, but his exhaustive and important chronicles of the Robin Hood Hills case may be both his and HBO’s crowning achievement in the field.
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True crime is always fascinating but rarely is it as disturbing as in Beware the Slenderman. The doc captures the events and aftermath of a 2014 murder attempt by two 12-year-old Wisconsin girls who tried to sacrifice their friend to the fictional internet character Slenderman. The interviews with experts on web culture trotted out to analyze the case are absorbing on their own, but the addition of the girls’ families, who are all remarkably candid, really makes Beware the Slenderman something to behold. Coming at the story from all angles—personal, cultural, psychological, and legal—the film ends with the terrifying conclusion that as long as internet memes can take on a life of their own, the easily impressionable are at risk.
6) Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds
Directors Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens rushed to get this film done following Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds’ abrupt passing in late 2016. But what makes Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds work is that it is less concerned with the details of its subjects’ deaths than it is with celebrating their lives. While undeniably bittersweet, Bright Lights is also a funny, revealing an intimate look at a unique mother/daughter relationship and a singular showbiz dynasty. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, but if you loved these two women, you’ll be glad you watched it.
Screengrab via YouTube/HBODocs (Fair Use)
7) Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
One wonders if years down the line, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief will mark a kind of before-and-after moment for the Church of Scientology. Based on the book by Lawrence Wright and made by the busiest man in documentaries today, Alex Gibney, Going Clear spares no prisoners in its examination of this celebrity-filled, cult-like organization. Tracking its roots from L. Ron Hubbard through the current wealthy but notorious incarnation of the movement, the film contains plenty of the gossip you’ve likely already heard about Scientology, as well as some crazy details you may not have: Its efforts to be seen by the U.S. government as a real religion, the rise of current church leader David Miscavige, the intimidation and abuse suffered by former members, the core tenets of Scientology. Few documentaries are as crazy, as entertaining, or as critical.
Screengrab via YouTube/HBODocs (Fair Use)
8) The Kid Stays in the Picture
Parodied to great effect on IFC’s Documentary Now, The Kid Stays in the Picture presents the life and career of legendary Hollywood producer Robert Evans, as told by Evans himself. And what a life and career he’s had. The Kid Stays in the Picture is an inside baseball look at not only Evans’ films but the larger state of the industry in the 1970s. Film buffs, catch this one while you can. Although it’s on HBO Now, it’s not originally an HBO doc, making its future on streaming uncertain.
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9) Project Nim
There are some documentaries that are so sad, it’s hard to recommend them, no matter how well-made or important they are. Project Nim is that for animal lovers. Telling the story of a chimp who was raised like a human on the Upper West Side in the 1970s, James Marsh (Man on Wire) crafts a cautionary tale about the differences between man and beast, and the dangers of forgetting those differences. It rivals Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man in subject matter, except that in Project Nim, it’s the animal who meets a tragic fate at the end. Be forewarned: This is a great film but will likely end with tears and anger.
Screengrab via YouTube/MovieTrailerNetwork (Fair Use)
10) The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst
This Jinx is the one real cheat on this list, since it’s not a standalone documentary or a series of films. Instead, this 2015 show from Andrew Jarecki (Capturing the Friedmans) chronicles the life and deaths of the notorious heir to a New York real-estate empire over the course of six episodes. The man in question is Robert Durst, a burping, black-eyed, endlessly fascinating enigma, who’s either a murderer or the unluckiest man in the world. Plenty of great true crime stories have been told through film, television, and podcasts over the past few years, but The Jinx remains distinctive for getting something like a confession out of its subject. Beware: T the last few minutes of this show will chill you to the bone.
Screengrab via YouTube/HBO UK (Fair Use)
Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance.
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