CLOSE
iStock
iStock

10 Documentaries That Actually Changed Things

iStock
iStock

Lots of documentaries spark a conversation, whether it’s about social justice or climate change. But all too often, that discussion fades away after a month or two of passionate debate. These 10 films didn’t just get people talking—they spurred court appeals, policy revisions, and even fast-food menu changes. Here’s how each of them made a real, tangible impact.

1. TITICUT FOLLIES (1967)

For 24 years, Frederick Wiseman’s unsettling documentary on the mistreated patients at Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane was banned—supposedly in the interest of those patients' privacy. But even though precious few people saw the film between 1967 and 1991, it’s credited with spurring the closure or reform of several major psychiatric hospitals. Plus, if Wiseman is to be believed, Bridgewater began using Titicut Follies as a training tool for employees on what not to do at work.

2. THE THIN BLUE LINE (1988)

Errol Morris tore into the evidence and testimony against Randall Dale Adams, a death row inmate accused of murdering a police officer, in this 1988 true crime documentary. His counter-argument was so convincing that it helped overturn Adams’ conviction, just days before he was sentenced to die by lethal injection.

3. BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE (2002)

After Michael Moore confronted Kmart executives over their sale of firearms and ammunition, the company announced it would stop selling bullets in all of its stores. The chain of events unfolds in Moore’s Oscar-winning documentary, which explores the causes of mass shootings and America’s broader relationship with guns.

4. SUPER SIZE ME (2004)

Less than two months after Morgan Spurlock’s documentary Super Size Me premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, McDonald’s announced the end of “super-sizing.” The fast food corporation claimed the decision had nothing to do with Spurlock’s grotesque Big Mac binging, but considering the rapid timeline, no one really believed Mickey D’s.

5. THE COVE (2009)

Some reports question how much The Cove actually impacted dolphin hunting in the Japanese city of Taiji. The practice is still going on today, but the number of dolphins captured nationwide has definitely dropped, from 23,000 in 2009 to less than 6000 in 2015. The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums also suspended its Japanese branch last spring for accepting dolphins acquired in the Taiji hunt; this move forced the branch to formally ban members from buying or exporting any dolphins from Taiji drive fisheries.

6. PARADISE LOST TRILOGY (1996-2011)

The Paradise Lost trilogy didn’t just bring widespread attention to the West Memphis Three murder case, it also earned the defendants crucial celebrity support. Johnny Depp, Peter Jackson, and Eddie Vedder personally donated millions of dollars to help Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. appeal their conviction. And it worked. The three men were released in 2011, after serving over 18 years in prison.

7. GASLAND (2010)

An academic study found that Josh Fox’s Oscar-nominated documentary on fracking led to greater online searching and social media chatter, increased media coverage, and local anti-fracking mobilization. Guess all those critics who compared it to Silent Spring had a point.

8. INSIDE JOB (2010)

Two Columbia University staffers appeared in this exposé of the 2008 financial crisis: Economist/professor Frederic Mishkin and Business School dean Glenn Hubbard. Both men were less than transparent about their professional connections to the finance world. The film reveals that Mishkin wrote a paper about Iceland’s economy without disclosing the $124,000 he’d received from the country’s chamber of commerce. Hubbard, meanwhile, grew combative when questioned about his many consulting clients. A few months after Inside Job’s release, Columbia released much stricter disclosure rules for faculty who work with Wall Street, and the economics department chair credited the movie (which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2011) as a driving force.

9. THE INVISIBLE WAR (2012)

Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War offers a harrowing look at the way rape cases in the U.S. military are mishandled. Mere days after watching it, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced a policy change in the way these crimes are investigated. This was before the documentary was even released. After its debut, one of the generals featured in the film was replaced, senators like Kirsten Gillibrand proposed even more radical policy changes, and the Pentagon introduced to new programs to “change the culture” surrounding rape allegations.

10. BLACKFISH (2013)

Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 documentary about captive orcas quickly proved to be bad business for SeaWorld. Bands ranging from The Beach Boys to Heart swiftly cancelled shows at SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Tampa (which SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment owns). Attendance and revenue dropped. Southwest Airlines ended its 26-year business partnership with the company. The House of Representatives got involved. Then finally, SeaWorld’s new CEO announced the park would end its orca breeding program and modify all orca performances, so the whales would no longer be forced to vamp for audiences. Instead, they’ll simply swim and communicate with each other, just like they would in the ocean.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
John P. Johnson, HBO
arrow
literature
Charles Dickens Wrote His Own Version of Westworld in the 1830s
John P. Johnson, HBO
John P. Johnson, HBO

Charles Dickens never fully devoted himself to science fiction, but if he had, his work might have looked something like the present-day HBO series Westworld. As The Conversation reports, the author explored a very similar premise to the show in The Mudfrog Papers, a collection of sketches that originally appeared in the magazine Bentley's Miscellany between 1837 and 1838.

In the story "Full Report of the Second Meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything," a scientist describes his plan for a park where rich young men can take out their aggression on "automaton figures." In Dickens's story, the opportunity to pursue those cruel urges is the park's main appeal. The theme park in Westworld may have been founded with a slightly less cynical vision, but it has a similar outcome. Guests can live out their heroic fantasies, but if they have darker impulses, they can act on those as well.

Instead of sending guests back in time, Dickens's attraction presents visitors with a place very similar to their own home. According to the scientist's pitch, the idyllic, Victorian scene contains roads, bridges, and small villages in a walled-off space at least 10 miles wide. Each feature is designed for destruction, including cheap gas lamps made of real glass. It's populated with robot cops, cab drivers, and elderly women who, when beaten, produce “groans, mingled with entreaties for mercy, thus rendering the illusion complete, and the enjoyment perfect.”

There are no consequences for harming the hosts in Westworld, but the guests at Dickens's park are at least sent to a mock trial for their crimes. However, rather than paying for their misbehavior, the hooligans always earn the mercy of an automated judge—Dickens's allegory for how the law favors the rich and privileged in the real world.

As for the Victorian-era automatons gaining sentience and overthrowing their tormenters? Dickens never got that far. But who knows where he would have taken it given a two-season HBO deal.

[h/t The Conversation]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
arrow
entertainment
10 Fascinating Facts About Ella Fitzgerald
Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Today marks what would have been the 101st birthday of Ella Fitzgerald, the pioneering jazz singer who helped revolutionize the genre. But the iconic songstress’s foray into the music industry was almost accidental, as she had planned to show off her dancing skills when she made her stage debut. Celebrate the birthday of the artist known as the First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz, or just plain ol’ Lady Ella with these fascinating facts.

1. SHE WAS A JAZZ FAN FROM A YOUNG AGE.

Though she attempted to launch her career as a dancer (more on that in a moment), Ella Fitzgerald was a jazz enthusiast from a very young age. She was a fan of Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, and truly idolized Connee Boswell of the Boswell Sisters. “She was tops at the time,” Fitzgerald said in 1988. “I was attracted to her immediately. My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it. I tried so hard to sound just like her.”

2. SHE DABBLED IN CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES AS A TEENAGER.

A photo of Ella Fitzgerald
Carl Van Vechten - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Fitzgerald’s childhood wasn’t an easy one. Her stepfather was reportedly abusive to her, and that abuse continued following the death of Fitzgerald’s mother in 1932. Eventually, to escape the violence, she moved to Harlem to live with her aunt. While she had been a great student when she was younger, it was following that move that her dedication to education faltered. Her grades dropped and she often skipped school. But she found other ways to fill her days, not all of them legal: According to The New York Times, she worked for a mafia numbers runner and served as a police lookout at a local brothel. Her illicit activities eventually landed her in an orphanage, followed by a state reformatory.

3. SHE MADE HER STAGE DEBUT AT THE APOLLO THEATER.

In the early 1930s, Fitzgerald was able to make a little pocket change from the tips she made from passersby while singing on the streets of Harlem. In 1934, she finally got the chance to step onto a real (and very famous) stage when she took part in an Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater on November 21, 1934. It was her stage debut.

The then-17-year-old managed to wow the crowd by channeling her inner Connee Boswell and belting out her renditions of “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection.” She won, and took home a $25 prize. Here’s the interesting part: She entered the competition as a dancer. But when she saw that she had some stiff competition in that department, she opted to sing instead. It was the first big step toward a career in music.

4. A NURSERY RHYME HELPED HER GET THE PUBLIC’S ATTENTION.

Not long after her successful debut at the Apollo, Fitzgerald met bandleader Chick Webb. Though he was initially reluctant to hire her because of what The New York Times described as her “gawky and unkempt” appearance, her powerful voice won him over. "I thought my singing was pretty much hollering," she later said, "but Webb didn't."

Her first hit was a unique adaptation of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” which she helped to write based on what she described as "that old drop-the-handkerchief game I played from 6 to 7 years old on up."

5. SHE WAS PAINFULLY SHY.

Though it certainly takes a lot of courage to get up and perform in front of the world, those who knew and worked with Fitzgerald said that she was extremely shy. In Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz, trumpeter Mario Bauzá—who played with Fitzgerald in Chick Webb’s orchestra—explained that “she didn't hang out much. When she got into the band, she was dedicated to her music … She was a lonely girl around New York, just kept herself to herself, for the gig."

6. SHE MADE HER FILM DEBUT IN AN ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MOVIE.

As her IMDb profile attests, Fitzgerald contributed to a number of films and television series over the years, and not just to the soundtracks. She also worked as an actress on a handful of occasions (often an actress who sings), beginning with 1942’s Ride ‘Em Cowboy, a comedy-western starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

7. SHE GOT SOME HELP FROM MARILYN MONROE.

“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt,” Fitzgerald said in a 1972 interview in Ms. Magazine. “It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the ’50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him—and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status—that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard … After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman—a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”

Though it has often been reported that the club’s owner did not want to book Fitzgerald because she was black, it was later explained that his reluctance wasn’t due to Fitzgerald’s race; he apparently didn’t believe that she was “glamorous” enough for the patrons to whom he catered.

8. SHE WAS THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMAN TO WIN A GRAMMY.

Ella Fitzgerald
William P. Gottlieb - LOC, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Among her many other accomplishments, in 1958 Fitzgerald became the first African American woman to win a Grammy Award. Actually, she won two awards that night: one for Best Jazz Performance, Soloist for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook, and another for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook.

9. HER FINAL PERFORMANCE WAS AT CARNEGIE HALL.

On June 27, 1991, Fitzgerald—who had, at that point, recorded more than 200 albums—performed at Carnegie Hall. It was the 26th time she had performed at the venue, and it ended up being her final performance.

10. SHE LOST BOTH OF HER LEGS TO DIABETES.

In her later years, Fitzgerald suffered from a number of health problems. She was hospitalized a handful of times during the 1980s for everything from respiratory problems to exhaustion. She also suffered from diabetes, which took much of her eyesight and led to her having to have both of her legs amputated below the knee in 1993. She never fully recovered from the surgery and never performed again. She passed away at her home in Beverly Hills on June 15, 1996.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER