Historical Documentaries That Made History

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It’s easy to win over crowds of moviegoers by screening a true story. The reason they’re always so popular is because the plot is more than a fictional setting with factitious characters; it offers real meat to the audience. Documentaries are endearing and fascinating for the same reason: they’re a hardcore portrayal of the truth that is infallibly more impactful than a scripted storyline.


Historical documentaries offer proximity to events, places and people that are foreign to us and yet meet the eye in a setting so real. Stories that have been chronicled in literature deserve to be portrayed on screen as well. The change of medium offers a completely different outlook on the actual event and for that sake it’s important to give historical documentaries the due credit they deserve.

Harlan County, U.S.A (1976)

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This documentary was directed by the award winning documentarian, Barbara Kopple, and features the 1973 Brookside Strike led by coal miners. Employed by the Eastover Coal Company, in southeast Kentucky, these miners were portrayed as living examples of the complexity of the mining industry. The occasional brawls between miners and skirmishes between their equally violent wives often ended in fatalities that symbolized systemic violence at large. Kopple received her first Academy Award for this documentary which was an example of powerful screenplay and an impactful subject.

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

Even before Sean Penn was awarded an Oscar for starring in Gus Van Sant’s Milk, the Oscar was Rob Epstein’s. Epstein won an award for best documentary for a bold and unswerving portrayal of Harvey Milk who was the first elected homosexual member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. This was a time of great political upheaval in California as it dared to alter the course past conventions and traditions of propriety had taken. His election to the board was an exemplary moment in history despite his assassination soon after his career took flight. His iconic legacy outlived the brevity of his life and career as an official member of the board. It inspires LGBT activism till date.

Elizabeth (1999)

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This four-part documentary series is an unparalleled example of historical storytelling on a massive scale. It focuses on the victories and tribulations of Queen Elizabeth I in grand taste and takes the viewers on a journey of her tenure from the moment she came to the throne in 1559. The first part portrays her tumultuous promotion From the Prison to the Palace. It shows how the Majesty, even as a child, displayed extraordinary strength of mind and will to rule. But irrespective of qualities that made her the rightful heir to the throne, her destiny wasn’t served to her on a platter. From sexual abuse to unjust imprisonment, the Queen had lived in the darkest of dungeons before rising to glory, and this documentary serves justice to her pursuit of the throne.

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