Welcome to Documental, a monthly column keeping fans of nonfiction films and docuseries up to date on all the documentary content coming to theaters and your favorite streaming services. Here’s a guide to the essential documentary titles to watch in February 2023.
It’s February, which means it’s time to experience deja vu. No, I’m not talking about an annual viewing of Groundhog Day. I mean it’s Black History Month, and all the streaming services are spotlighting the same movies made by and/or featuring Black people. While it’s definitely great that Black artists are being celebrated, reminding subscribers that your library includes Family Matters or Green Book isn’t what the occasion really calls for (however, streamers putting all their Black stories on one single page is a good way of showing how Hollywood sure needs more Black stories). However, outlets like the Criterion Channel once again sharing legit Black History films, i.e. documentaries, is always welcome.
Here are some of the essentials from this month, including Criterion’s showcase.
New Sam Pollard Documentaries
Any time a Sam Pollard documentary or collaboration is coming out, you need to be excited, even if they’re mostly serious endeavors. The former editor for Spike Lee has been ramping up his output of important Black History documentaries, many of them as director, co-director, producer, or a combination of the three. This month, he has two features arriving on different streaming services. First, on Peacock, the Critics Choice Documentary Awards nominee Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power, which he made with Geeta Gandbhir (Black and Missing) begins streaming on February 2. The film presents an informative and often intimately shared history lesson centered around Lowndes County, Alabama, and the fight for the right to vote, which led to Stokely Carmichael’s promotion of the Black Power movement.
The second Sam Pollard documentary arriving in February 2023 is the two-parter Bill Russell: Legend. Releasing on Netflix on February 8, this one is a solo directorial project from Pollard and, as the title indicates, is about NBA legend and civil rights activist Bill Russell. Not only does the doc feature Russell’s last interview before his death last year, but it also includes excerpts from his personal writings read by actor Jeffrey Wright. Of course, there are also the essential interviews with Larry Byrd, Magic Johnson, Steph Curry, and Barack Obama, among others. This is one of those “sports documentaries” that is more than that label, and it should be seen by anyone regardless of whether they’re a fan of basketball and/or documentaries about basketball.
Criterion Celebrates Black History and James Baldwin
Many of the titles included in the Criterion Channel’s Celebrate Black History program are staples of the streaming service, but they deserve a little push. The documentaries featured include LGBTQ+ Pride crossovers Portrait of Jason and Paris Is Burning as well as other genuine historical records such as Agnes Varda’s Black Panthers and William Greaves’s Nationtime, which covers the 1972 National Black Political Convention. There are music docs, such as Remnants of the Watts Festival and Imagine the Sound, and there’s the actor’s showcase Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist. Also, while it’s a separate program, be sure to look for Criterion’s James Baldwin On-Screen curation, which includes everything from the recent I’m Not Your Negro to the classic Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris.
A Millionaire Mutt
In the tradition of documentaries such as Project Nim and Tiger King, with their messed up relationships between people and pets, Gunther’s Millions goes the extra measure in also recalling popular docs about cults, financial scams, and spoiled lifestyles. The three-part docuseries from Netflix follows the twist-filled tale of a German shepherd who inherited half a billion dollars and the oddly specific trust that came with it. Sure, it’s sensational fluff in the vein of the Fyre Festival films, with a tone and editing style that means to mock many of its interviewees, but this sort of story and the people involved deserve this kind of documentary — and they’ll probably enjoy their extra fame through it anyway. Check it out on the streaming service starting February 1.