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From addiction in Major League Baseball to hip-hop in Iran — nine must-see documentaries of the summer

There’s a wealth of well-made, meaty documentaries out this summer if you’re looking for something to watch in addition to the latest slate of Hollywood blockbusters. Heading into the Rio Olympics — however cursed they may seem — there’s T-Rex, which tells the story of Flint, Michigan, boxer Claressa Shields and her inspiring journey to winning a gold medal in 2012. And for devoted New York Mets fans, Doc & Darryl is a must-see. Whether you’re looking for an inspiring story of overcoming cancer, an absurd snapshot of what it takes to (almost) get elected, or stories that make you rethink subjects you thought you already knew about, these documentaries have got you covered.

Check It

Jennie Livingston set a high bar with 1990’s Paris is Burning, her documentary about the black gay ball scene of New York. Twenty-six years later, the language of Paris is Burning has permeated the culture so much that even major news organizations now use the phrase “throwing shade.” Check It, the latest from Dana Flor and Tony Oppenheimer, the directorial team behind The Nine Lives of Marion Barry, follows the lives of gay and transgender teens who are members of the Check It gang in Washington, D.C. The Check It serves as part-family, part-protection for gay youth susceptible to gay-bashing, but the film shows how the gang’s members also instigate violence. Check It provides a realistic look at the effects of cyclical poverty, prejudice, and homelessness on gay youth. Advocacy groups in the nation’s capital are still basking in the victory of the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage. Earlier this year, the Stonewall Inn was officially recognized as a national monument in the struggle for LGBT rights. But Check It reminds us that for poor gay youth of color, especially those engaged in sex work to support themselves, little has changed since 1990, and there’s more work to be done to remedy the complicated issues the film highlights.

Check It is still making its rounds on the festival circuit after opening at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year.

Doc & Darryl

Remember when the New York Mets were permanently parked at the bottom of the National League East standings — until they found saviors in Dwight “Doc” Gooden and Darryl Strawberry? Directors Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio take us back in a new ESPN 30 for 30 (disclosure: The Undefeated is part of ESPN) that reveals a mid-’80s Mets team powered by amphetamines — or greenies, as the drugs were called — as it moved up in the division standings. “We had a team full of junkies,” Strawberry says in the film. “It wasn’t just me and Doc.” They weren’t just the whiz kids who propelled the team to its 1986 World Series title, though. Strawberry and Gooden were, perhaps unfairly, tied together as two addicts whose problems with alcohol and cocaine prematurely ended what should have been a remarkable 10-year run for the Mets. Doc & Darryl tells the stories of both men’s addictions and their attempts to overcome them.

Doc & Darryl premieres July 14 on ESPN.

Maya Angelou: ‘And Still I Rise’

It’s easy to fall into thinking of the late Maya Angelou as something of a national grandmother when she was so much more than that. Thankfully, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, from filmmakers Rita Coburn Whack and Bob Hercules, is here to correct that misconception. The film, which features interviews with Angelou’s closest family and friends, including Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Oprah Winfrey, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, offers a comprehensive portrait of Angelou’s life and introduces us to a woman who could be bawdy and make ill-advised romantic decisions just like the rest of us. Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise recently won the audience award for best feature at the AFI Docs film festival.

Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise will air on PBS following a theatrical release, which is yet to be announced. However, you can request screenings or attend those already scheduled around the country.

Miss Sharon Jones!

Sharon Jones may not be a typical Top 40 pop artist, but she and her band, the Dap-Kings, have built and maintained a devoted audience nonetheless. Jones is the sort of soulful performer who just oozes stage presence without even trying, which is why it was so disturbing to learn that she’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2013. Resulting in an emotional, beautifully rendered story, two-time Academy Award-winning director Barbara Kopple follows the dancing, shimmying dynamo through her battle with cancer and her struggle to get back to doing the thing she loves most — performing.

Miss Sharon Jones! opens in Los Angeles on Aug. 5 and throughout the country during the rest of the month.

Pervert Park

There’s a unique community for registered sex offenders in St. Petersburg, Florida, called Florida Justice Transition. Pervert Park, the debut documentary from filmmakers Frida and Lasse Barkfors, takes a look at some its residents, their lives, and their crimes. The Barkfors addressed a heated and taboo topic, treating their subjects as human beings without excusing or minimizing their crimes. It’s a fascinating look at a community of people many would prefer to write off entirely.

Pervert Park airs July 11 on PBS’ POV.


One of the greatest testaments to the power of hip-hop is its reach. It might have been born in the Bronx, but its ownership has scattered in a million directions, including toward the Middle East. In Sonita, Sonita Alizadeh is a teenage Afghan refugee living in Tehran, Iran, where women are not allowed to sing. Sonita wants to be a rapper. Her dream parents are Michael Jackson and Rihanna, but in reality, her mother is pushing to marry off Alizadeh because her bride price is about $9,000. What’s interesting about Sonita is that director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami argues directly with Alizadeh’s mother about her daughter’s fate. It’s atypical for documentaries, but you can’t help but feel Maghami’s outrage. Alizadeh is now an activist fighting to end child marriage.

Sonita won the world cinema grand jury prize and the audience award for world cinema documentary at Sundance. It’s currently still making the rounds on the festival circuit.

T-Rex: Her Fight For Gold

On the eve of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, T-Rex follows boxer Claressa Shields’ amazing journey from Flint, Michigan, to the 2012 London Olympics, where she won a gold medal before she’d even finished high school. Directors Drea Cooper and Zachary Canepari provide all the context for understanding just how crazily improbable Shields’ achievement was, while also showing the limitations of what one Olympic gold medal can do for a girl from Flint. In the midst of having to shoulder the financial hopes of those closest to her, Shields is also trying to maintain a normal high school romance with her sparring partner. It all comes together in a terrific story that makes it impossible not to root for Shields in 2016.

T-Rex airs Aug. 2 on PBS’ Independent Lens.


This might be one of the best, and yet oddly curious documentaries of the year, simply because of the deep dive directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg do on Anthony Weiner and his 2013 campaign for mayor of New York City. It’s a fabulously entertaining view from inside a political campaign, giving us a firsthand experience of all the weird, Good Wife-style maneuvering that takes place. It leaves us with questions about his wife, top Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, given that she was an enormous factor in Weiner’s decision to run and the film is now out as her boss is running for president. An astonishingly personal film that captures all sorts of uncomfortable and tense moments between Abedin and Weiner, the film won the U.S. grand jury prize in the documentary category at Sundance.

Weiner is currently in theaters.

The Witness

Director James Solomon revisits the notorious story of the horrifying death of Kitty Genovese, who was murdered in Queens, New York, in 1964. For years, the takeaway from Genovese’s death — the official story as reported by the New York Times — was that 38 people heard or saw her being attacked and that no one bothered to help her. Genovese became the most famous illustration of the bystander effect. Solomon follows Genovese’s younger brother Bill in his effort to piece together what really happened to his sister. Earlier this year, Genovese’s killer, Winston Mosely, died in prison at age 81. Bill Genovese gives the film emotional grounding, but The Witness will hold strong appeal for those who found themselves entranced by Serial and Netflix’s Making a Murderer.

The Witness is now playing in New York and Washington, D.C., and will continue to open throughout the country this month.

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Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.