Twenty-First Century Political Documentary in the United States

Authored by: Betsy A. McLane

The Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics

Print publication date:  June  2016
Online publication date:  July  2016

Print ISBN: 9780415717397
eBook ISBN: 9781315678863
Adobe ISBN: 9781317392460


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Some herald the early twenty-first century as a “Golden Age” of political and social-issue feature length documentaries, citing films such as Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002) and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and Errol Morris’ The Fog of War (2003). Many, although by no means all, notable political documentaries are made in the United States of America and deal with subjects specific to that country’s concerns. This essay is a cumulative examination of specific trends in cultural norms, problems, political affairs, and experiences as represented in major documentary films that originated in the US from 2000 through 2014. The subjects of the films under consideration are also US centric, although American filmmakers have investigated and continue to explore countless international topics, and makers from dozens of countries are responsible for the worldwide documentary explosion. 1 Two other concerns also define this essay: timeframe and subject matter. Especially significant earlier films are referenced too, since documentarians working in the early 2000s are obviously influenced by earlier films and filmmakers. Films of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s set the popularity of documentary features as a voice of dissent. These created precedents for the twenty-first century when over 100 feature political documentaries received critical and public attention. Films considered here are defined as being in some way directly concerned with government and politics. All social issue films include politics, whether personal or governmental, but documentaries concerned chiefly with topics such as health, sexual orientation and abuses, natural resources, discrimination, animal rights, immigration, self-portraiture, and to some extent earth’s environment are not the primary focuses. This distinction does not diminish the importance of such films and the abilities of their makers. Decisions about which films are included or excluded are the author’s own, based partly on personal judgment about their influences on American democratic processes.

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