Moving America Forward

The 10 Most Powerful Documentaries of 2017

December 28, 2017
The 10 Most Powerful Documentaries of 2017
"Chasing Coral" chronicles the unprecedented disappearance of coral reefs around the world. Netflix
These are the films that we couldn’t stop watching — or recommending — to everyone, everywhere.

To say the year in politics has been a whirlwind would be an understatement. Expensive natural disasters ravaged great swaths of the country, immigration and tax reform provoked wicked political attacks from both the right and the left, and stark revelations from women exposed a culture of sexual assault that touches almost every industry. And that’s just been the last four months.

In film, though, it was a year of fantastic documentaries that moved, inspired and challenged us. Here, our top perspective-changing films of 2017.

“Chasing Coral”

Years of overfishing and boating have caused coral reefs around the world to vanish, as they transform from once-vibrant homes for a diverse array of wildlife to colorless rock devoid of life. “Chasing Coral” follows a team of scientists, photographers and divers as they try to answer the question: Why are the world’s coral reefs are disappearing, and what we can do about slowing their untimely death?

“The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson”

The rise of the LGBTQ movement is often talked about through the lens of gays and lesbians, but very little ink has been given to how the drag and transgender communities played an equally significant role. One of the most prominent names in the fight for equality was Marsha P. Johnson, a transwoman and activist who was well known in New York City’s gay scene for decades, beginning with her role in the Stonewall Inn riots of 1969. But her mysterious death in 1992 has been debated for years. Was it an inside job by the mob? The NYPD? Or was it all just a tragic accident?


In Huntington, W. Va., the opioid epidemic is killing people at a rapid pace. The small city’s fire department fields dozens of calls a day relating to overdoses, but it has few resources to help everyone who needs it. This short documentary follows three local women as they battle the crisis in the city known as the “overdose capital of America”: the fire chief who dispenses life-saving drugs, the church leader who helps get women off the streets, and the judge who keeps addicts out of jail and with their families.

“I Am Evidence”

Mariska Hargitay, best known for her role as Detective Olivia Benson on “Law & Order: SVU,” has been one of the most vocal activists for getting rape kits tested and prosecutions made across the nation. Her film, “I Am Evidence,” explores the widespread problem of untested, backlogged rape kits, and the thousands of women each year who don’t get to see justice because of it.

“I Am Not Your Negro”

This Rotten Tomatoes certified-fresh movie is wholly inspired by the unfinished work of writer and social critic James Baldwin, an openly gay black man and civil rights activist famously known for his debate in Cambridge against William F. Buckley in 1965. The movie, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, is an intensely sobering look at race in America, and how far we haven’t come in mending racial wounds.

“Nobody Speak”

We all had our love/hate relationship with Gawker, the now-defunct website known for its dogged, and sometimes unapologetic, journalism covering (and skewering) anything celebrity- and media-related. But the company’s brash take on free speech was challenged in a lawsuit brought by Terry Gene Bollea, aka Hulk Hogan, after Gawker published a sex tape starring the former wrestler. The court case was a mix of jaw-dropping legal tap-dancing and dark money that traced back to Peter Thiel, one of President Trump’s earliest endorsers in Silicon Valley that had some major beef of his own with the website.


Filmed over the course of 10 years, “Quest” looks at the life of one family in North Philadelphia and juxtaposes the question of what it means to be a typical American family when gun violence and danger lurk everywhere in the neighborhood you call home.

“Rat Film”

Like it or not, rats are very similar to humans. Beyond genetics, we are just as filthy and opportunistic as the rodents that ravage our cities. In Baltimore, there’s not just a rat problem, “there’s a people problem,” as one of the film’s subjects points out. The documentary examines the rodent infestation in one small area of Baltimore — a city plagued by poverty and high crime rates — and how the issue speaks more to the divide in quality of life between white and black communities than adequate pest control.

“Strong Island”

In 1992, Yance Ford’s brother, William Ford Jr., was shot and killed in New York. Ford Jr. was black, the shooter white, and the jury refused to indict. Decades later, Ford has channeled his frustrations into a true crime documentary that questions the investigation into whether his brother’s death was a murder or an act of self defense.

“The Work”

Imagine being put into a prison for four days with hardened criminals. What would you learn about them? About yourself? “The Work” profiles three men from the outside who join a days-long group therapy event at California’s Folsom State Prison. The men get an inside glimpse into what it really means to be incarcerated in America, and the challenges inherent with rehabilitating oneself.