Documentaries have the power to inspire emotion and ignite change. The best ones teach us something we didn’t previously know, serving as reliable information sources that shed light on important political, societal or cultural issues. In a world plagued by media attacks and fake news, their purpose may be more important than ever. From documentaries that entertain, to those that spark fresh dialogue, here are a few current offerings worth knowing about.   

Natural Wonders 

Lovers of David Attenborough’s stunningly produced Planet Earth docuseries have new reasons to rejoice this summer, as the beloved broadcaster and famed natural historian is narrating a series that premiered on May 23. Called Prehistoric Planet and streaming in five parts exclusively on Apple TV, the documentary depicts dinosaurs in a way they’ve never previously been seen. That’s thanks to producer Jon Favreau (of Lion King fame) and movie tech gurus who crafted a computer-generated live-action experience that feels like traveling back in time to the Cretaceous period. Giant lizards move with an incomparable level of realism, while the portrayal of many species aims to correct outdated ideas about dinosaurs introduced by pop culture over the years.

From prehistoric animals to those living in the present day, former President Barrack Obama is adding yet another chapter to his storied career by serving as host of Our Great National Parks, which debuted April 13 on Netflix, in time for Earth Day. This five-episode series travels to five continents in exploration of African beaches, Japanese islands, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and more. It’s a “celebration of our planet’s greatest national parks and wilderness,” said the 44th president, who fiercely advocated for public waters and lands while in the Oval Office. 

Enduring Pop Icons

Jennifer Lopez has been in the public eye since 1991, when she started as a Fly Girl dancer on the hit comedy series In Living Color. Now, a Netflix documentary called Halftime details remarkable life details about the international superstar, from her unforgettable 2020 Super Bowl performance to her inaugural performance for President Biden. It also offers an intimate look at what the second half of her career may hold, as a 52-year-old mother, artist and fiancé (for the second time!) to actor Ben Affleck. Halftime will kick off the Tribeca Film Festival happening live in New York City from June 8 to 19, with a premiere at the United Palace theater in Washington Heights, close to the Bronx neighborhood that helped define Lopez’s early years.  

Not many of us get to continue shaping our life narrative after we die—but singer George Michael was unlike most people. The famed English pop star passed away at home on Christmas morning in 2016, yet a new documentary called George Michael Freedom Uncut gives fans a precious glimpse into his personal life. It premiered in theaters worldwide on June 22, three days before his birthday. Michael was heavily involved in the work before his death, allowing unprecedented access to private occurrences and significant events. “The film is George’s final work,” said friend and co-director David Austin. “Narrated by George himself, it is the complete story.” Expect interviews with fellow A-listers like Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Mary J. Blige and the ‘90s-era supermodels who appeared in his famed “Freedom” music video, including Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford and Linda Evangelista. Unseen firsthand footage reveals private moments, such as details about Michael’s relationship with his first love, Anselmo Feleppa.

Confronting Controversy

Black Mambas premiered March 30 at the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival, offering a rare and powerful glimpse into South Africa’s first all-female anti-poaching team. The group was formed to protect Big 5 game animals—lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and African buffalo in Greater Kruger Park. It has learned that the Black Mambas often face dangers even greater than poachers. As they patrol the park without guns, they attempt to “navigate the country’s embedded post-colonialism” world and “must champion their own empowerment and liberation in a racial present.” The documentary was filmed during two years of Covid lockdowns, further adding to the sense of urgency and crisis already existing in that part of the world. 

Finally, another offering from Netflix focuses on the smallest and perhaps most puzzling among us—babies. The eponymous Babies docuseries follows 15 newborns and their parents from around the globe as they navigate the first few years of life. Insight from neurological and behavioral experts serves to demystify the actions of infants and toddlers—and many of the revelations are remarkable. Apart from being able to understand gravity and having the same size brain as adults, babies can distinguish individual monkey faces, a superpower that disappears after age one. Expect tons of cuteness from the six-part series that took three years to film. Here’s to many hours of happy and productive viewing!

Caitlin Armstrong
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