The Best Documentaries of 2021 (So Far)

Documentaries allow audiences an up close and personal look into cultural moments and famous figures. From forgotten summer festivals to well-known stars, there’s been a wide range of topics for documentaries to cover this year. This list isn’t exhaustive by any means, but if you’re looking for something entertaining and informative, check out these films.

ROADRUNNER: A Film About Anthony Bourdain

 Where to watch: In theaters now, to be released on HBO Max and CNN

When the trailer for Roadrunner dropped in June, we were already reaching for the tissues. The full documentary was more heartfelt than we were prepared for. Chef, writer and adventurer Anthony Bourdain lived a legendary life. Roadrunner attempts to explore that legacy through “an intimate, behind-the-scenes look at how an anonymous chef became a world-renowned cultural icon.” 

Directed by Morgan Neville, who did such a beautiful job with Fred Rogers in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and gave classic rock’s backup singers a well-deserved turn in the spotlight with 20 Feet From Stardom, this documentary explores the life of a fascinating figure. With extended conversations with Bourdain’s friends from around the world, fans old and new can see why Bourdain became such a beloved figure.

Naomi Osaka

Where to watch: Netflix

Naomi Osaka is one of the world’s most famous tennis players. She’s talented and gifted, a natural champion. But what does that kind of recognition and pressure do to a 23-year-old who is trying to navigate her multicultural identity in a divisive world? 

“For so long, I’ve tied winning to my worth as a person. Anyone that would know me, they know me for being a tennis player. So, like, what am I if I’m not a good tennis player?”

That’s the big question the superstar asks herself in her Netflix docuseries Naomi Osaka. The documentary gives an intimate peek into the life of one of the most gifted and complex athletes of her generation. 

Osaka has been a leader on and off the court. Earlier this year, she withdrew from the French Open to focus on her mental health, shocking fans around the world. Similar to another top female athlete who stepped away from competition for mental health reasons, Osaka has been increasingly open about the challenges and pressures she faces. The docuseries provides an unfiltered insight into the mind of a young female athlete. 

Summer of Soul 

Where to Watch: Hulu

Also called When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised, this documentary showcases never-before-seen footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival, a six week festival thousands of people attended to celebrate Black history, culture, music and fashion in the summer of 1969. Directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the film explores the cultural impact the festival had on the lives of Black people and the lasting effect of it generations later. 

Featuring Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Nina Simone, Sly & The Family Stone, B.B. King and more, the documentary is a celebration of Black culture. While the world remembers 1969 for Woodstock, there was a full cultural revolution happening that is just as important today as it was then. 

Note: It is rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, smoking and brief drug material.

Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street

Where to Watch: Amazon Prime, Apple TV

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When Sesame Street first premiered in 1969, the cast and creators were hoping to educate at least a few children. Fifty years later, young audiences everywhere have been entertained by a large, yellow bird, a trash-loving grump, a furry red monster with impeccable falsetto and a whole cast of unique puppets.

Inspired by the book by Michael Davis, Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street focuses on the first two decades of the beloved children’s show and features interviews with the “original gang” — Joan Ganz Cooney, Jon Stone, and Jim Henson. The documentary gives audiences an insider look into the minds and hearts of the show’s creators, artists, writers and educators who established one of the most influential and enduring children’s programs in television history. You’ll laugh throughout this heartwarming doc, and maybe even cry in a few places. 

Framing Britney Spears

 

Where to watch: Hulu or FX

If you haven’t been paying attention to Britney Spears’ life these last few months, what have you been doing? For years, the #FreeBritney movement, a fan-created movement to “free” Spears from her conservatorship, has gained popularity. Earlier this year, the New York Times released a documentary with FX about the movement, featuring interviews with fans, former assistants and legal consultants. The documentary explores Spears current legal situation, including how she got to where she is. Watching the film, audiences are forced to reconcile with how we treat celebrities, particularly young female stars. 

Following the documentary’s release, Spears spoke out for the first time ion 13 years about her conservatorship. In a meeting with a judge, Spears gave her side of the story, alleging that her father’s conservatorship has caused her immense damage. I’ve been in shock. I am traumatized. You know, fake it till you make it. But now I’m telling you the truth, OK? I’m not happy. I can’t sleep. I’m so angry it’s insane. And I’m depressed. I cry every day.”

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