Top 5 Netflix documentaries about women

June 09, 2014

Story by: Olivia Knott

Before you spend summer re-watching Friday Night Lights for the third time on Netflix (of which I am guilty), consider watching a documentary. Here are my five picks for documentaries that focus on women; while vastly different from one another, each one will inspire and make you think. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide If you’re interested in women’s global issues, this two-part documentary is an excellent place to start. Based on the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, the eponymous documentary travels through ten different countries where the film claims female oppression is at its most extreme. The documentarians spotlight women within the community who are working to change deeply ingrained cultural values in order to fight human rights violations such as sex trafficking and intergenerational prostitution. A famous actress accompanies each trip, in an effort to use their notoriety to bring attention to the issues at hand. While at times their somewhat forced presence feels like a well-meant but ill executed attempt to attract viewers, some of the actresses, especially Diane Lane and Olivia Wilde, offer intelligent insights into a community’s struggle. In light of recent accusations about discrepancies of the life story of Somaly Mam, one of the women profiled in the film for her work against sex slavery, this documentary has also created an interesting opportunity for dialogue about the ethics of reporting stories of trauma.

Dark Girls Dark Girls investigates the cultural pervasiveness of colorism, prejudice based on the varying degrees of lightness or darkness of the skin, and how such prejudice exists most heavily within the black community itself. Tracing the its roots back to survival tactics of slavery, the film focuses on the role it plays in modern society, especially in the media and the big business of skin lightening treatments, ultimately examining how these factors affect a woman’s self-worth and relationships with others, especially romantically and as a parent. Follow up this documentary with Lupita Nyong’o’s poignant speech at the Essence Magazine Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon about searching for role models in the media and discovering the meaning of true beauty. Shely Wright: Wish Me Away After denying her sexuality for most of her life, Shely Wright: Wish Me Away follows the coming out story of a singer working in the deeply conservative country music industry. The film documents her difficult task of navigating the inextricable relationship between Christianity, her music genre and fan base. The highlights of this documentary are Shely’s home videos made in the time leading up to her public coming out where we see her at her most honest, as well as her relationship with her sister and father, her steadfast support system as she prepares to tell 8 million fans, including her own mother, that she is lesbian. What the film lacks in its artistic execution, it surely makes up for in its emotional power. Diana Vreeland: The Eye has to Travel Told with fabulously charming candor, Diana Vreeland narrates her ascent to fashion stardom as fashion editor for “Harpers Bazaar,” editor in chief for “Vogue,” and then a consultant for the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Before Anna Wintour, this visionary force behind “Vogue” turned the magazine into a cutting edge publication in the 1960s, using fashion spreads to tell stories, making the December issue her creative brainchild. Once deemed an ugly duckling by her mother, Vreeland proves that drive, wit and intelligence are what make a woman beautiful. Full of quotable one-liners, here are a few of my favorites:

  • “Style is everything… Without it, you’re nobody… and I’m not talking about a bunch of clothes.”
  • “She made it OK for women to be ambitious, for women to be outlandish, to be extraordinary and for women to garner attention.”
  • “Ravishing personalities are the most interesting things in the world.”

I couldn’t agree more. 20 Feet from Stardom My favorite pick, this documentary gives a well-deserved face to the powerhouse voices of black female back-up singers, women who have made a career out of standing behind music’s superstars. The documentary tackles the question: “Why, despite their efforts, didn’t these extraordinarily talented women succeed as solo artists?” The wisdom and humility with which these women recount their careers reveals a love of music in its purest form, transcendent beyond the temperamental demands of show business that in many ways hindered their ability to expand their careers. A reminder that a life of performing is at its core about passion for your art, this is a must see for any aspiring entertainer.

Letter From the Editor