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5 documentaries on YouTube that will make you smarter

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Amrita Khalid


Posted on Nov 28, 2015   Updated on May 27, 2021, 2:18 pm CDT

YouTube may sometimes seem like a bottomless pit of makeup tutorials and cat videos. But along with unfortunate covers of Adele’s “Hello” and fan commentary on Minecraft: Story Mode, you can access some of the best documentaries ever made on YouTube. These include documentaries that will school you on the great stock market crash of 1929, Ronald Reagan’s path to the White House, and the perils of agribusiness. 

Both insightful and fascinating, these five documentaries can fill the gaps in your education that happened as a result of… well, spending too much time on YouTube.

1) The World According to Monsanto (2008)

Few corporations have as evil a reputation as the agricultural technology company known as Monsanto. But for a thorough primer on what Monsanto did to earn its reputation, look no further than this compelling documentary by a French journalist.  

The documentary’s full title, which is The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Corruption, and the Control of Our Food Supply, gives no illusions of being unbiased. Filmmaker and author Marie-Monique Robin digs deep into the history of the American multinational corporation. Monsanto’s numerous claims to infamy include producing Agent Orange for use by the U.S. military, creating the bovine growth hormone, and being the largest producer of genetically modified seeds in the world.

The World According to Monsanto reveals how the corporation ignored scientific evidence, coerced third-world farmers, and pressured government agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture into doing its bidding. Robin isn’t shy about digging through the archives in order to detail Monsanto’s grim trajectory to global dominance. A particularly chilling 1987 clip shows then-Vice President George H. W. Bush being given a tour of a Monsanto lab, during which he tells Monsanto officials that if the company runs into any problems winning approvals for its products, they can call him. “We’re in the ‘de-reg’ business,” he quips. 

2) The Men Who Killed Kennedy (1988)

For a crash-course on how to get censured by the British Parliament and draw the ire of two former presidents, look no further than The Men Who Killed Kennedy. Multiple conspiracy theories surround the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (“theories” being the operative word), and this nine-part British documentary series covers many of them, in a way that some criticized as blurring the line between facts and speculation. 

The most troubling theory—that President Lyndon B. Johnson was behind Kennedy’s assassination—surfaces in the ninth episode. After “The Guilty Men” aired in 2003 on the History Channel, the network and its parent companies got in a whole heap of trouble with Johnson’s former aides, including former Johnson press secretary Bill Moyer, along with former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. In a letter to network executives, President Ford called the charges made in the documentary, “’the most damaging accusations ever made against a former vice president and president in American history.”

Controversy behind The Men Who Killed Kennedy didn’t begin stateside; the series’ questionable research ethics resulted in documentarian Nigel Turner getting censured by the British Parliament after the initial two-part series aired in 1988. Watch The Men Who Killed Kennedy with the discerning eye it deserves, and you’ll give your critical thinking skills a real workout. 

3) 1929: The Great Crash

This BBC2 documentary gives a fascinating look at how the stock market crash of 1929 rudely ended the decade of carefree consumption known as the Roaring Twenties. The 1929 crash happened when Wall Street was booming, Americans were investing in record numbers, and financial regulations were the last thing on Congress’s mind. But then over a period of six days in the fall of 1929, shares crashed by a third on the New York Stock Exchange, and the Dow dropped $30 billion in market value—more than the total cost of World War I. 

1929: The Great Crash  shows how those six fateful days on Wall Street would set of a sequence of events that culminated in the Great Depression. In the years following the crash, banks shut down and people’s savings were eliminated. Businesses, even entirely solvent companies, were unable to get loans. Many companies declared bankruptcy, and unemployment skyrocketed. The film includes interviews with a variety of academics, historians, as well as people who witnessed the crash first-hand. 

4) A Brief History of Time (1991)

A Brief History of Time is a documentary on the life of Stephen Hawking, the famous astrophysicist whose best-selling book with the same name explained black holes and Big Bang theory to everyday audiences. Unlike the book, this documentary focuses on Hawking himself. Directed by Errol Morris of The Thin Blue Line, the film includes interviews with Hawking’s mother, sister, students, professors, and legions of his friends and acquaintances. The film offers a candid look into the life of the renowned scientist as he lives with Lou Gehrig’s disease, which has left him confined to a wheelchair and only able to speak through a complex computer technology that he operates with his cheek. 

5) BBC Storyville: Ronald Reagan (2011)

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This BBC documentary on an iconic and polarizing U.S. president is not only one of the best; it also offers a fascinatingly continental perspective on a figure whom many see as quintessentially American. BBC Storyville: American Idol encapsulates the long, storied career of former President Ronald Reagan and his administration’s impact on foreign policy. We learn how a group of wealthy California business owners weary of Big Government in the ’6os set the stage for a former movie star to become the new face of the White House. 

Photo via Michael/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed

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*First Published: Nov 28, 2015, 11:00 am CST