10 Empowering Documentaries to Watch Over the Holidays

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As we wind down over the holidays and meditate on the year ahead, there is no better time to watch empowering documentaries. They can inspire change, help us better understand the lives of others, and help us better approach our futures. From talk show hosts to politicians and even world-renowned pop stars, here are 10 documentaries to watch during your festive downtime. Cozy up in a blanket and grab your cocoa, take notes in your journal, and get ready to stream the truth.

1Becoming

This documentary follows Michelle Obama as the former First Lady promotes her autobiography, Becoming, from key stage moments to backstage interviews shot over a six-month period in late 2018 and early 2019. If you haven’t seen this Netflix documentary, please do so. It traces her upbringing, tours her childhood home in the South Side of Chicago, and even includes a clip from her birthday party. Directed by New York filmmaker Nadia Hallgren, it details her experience studying law at an Ivy league school, becoming a lawyer, and of course, making history as the first African American first lady of the United States. As she tells a group of women in the film: “You've got to find the tools within yourself to feel visible and to be heard, and to use your voice.”

2Wendy Williams: What A Mess!

While the queen of daytime TV, famous for her talk show, The Wendy Williams Show, is still on a hiatus due to medical concerns, you can understand her personal and professional past in a documentary about the host on Lifetime. Wendy Williams: What A Mess! is an inspiring biopic that traces her rise through the entertainment industry as a radio personality, then a divorce from her husband and drug abuse. It’s so raw and honest; it’ll make you think twice about persevering through absolute difficulty.

3Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things

The Minimalists are a formidable duo. Writers Joshua Fields Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus have helped millions toss out our non-essentials through their Netflix documentaries The Minimalists: Less is Now and Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things. Both will inspire you to get rid of junk, just in time to turn over a new leaf—and a new year. Their philosophy is simple: live with less stuff.

4Dolly Parton: Here I Am

This Netflix documentary follows the first-person tale of the acclaimed country singer who went from a humble busking blonde to a worldwide superstar with her own theme park called Dollywood. She is not only a benevolent personality but a savvy businessperson, and it reveals here how she built her iconic brand.

5WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn

This Hulu documentary traces the rise and fall of a billion-dollar business, WeWork, a coworking space that gained a cult following in the 2010s, which led to one of the biggest corporate flameouts, not to mention VC dramas, in recent history. The filmmaker Jed Rothstein calls WeWork’s founder Adam Neumann a “hippie-messianic leader,” and we see how he shaped his vision from the company’s early stages to where it is today. As the director said: “All of it to me speaks as a cautionary tale from the financial perspective. It also comments on our financial system, when engines of capitalism are not always spun in the right direction. Maybe we can do things differently.”

614 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible

Few reach the top of Mount Everest, never mind the tallest, most dangerous peaks across Asia. One mountain climber stepped up to the plate and brought a camera crew with him. In 2019, Nepali mountaineer Nirmal “Nims” Purja set out to climb all 14 peaks of the world’s tallest mountains in just seven months, breaking a world record. This documentary, which is on Netflix, reveals the power of inner strength, physical endurance, and remaining fearless in the eye of the storm. It’s a beautiful film, a journey where he succeeded when many told him what he was doing was “impossible.”

7Miss Americana: Taylor Swift

See how one of the world’s most iconic singers deals with bad press, family drama, and touring chaos in this revealing documentary. As someone who has had to live in the public eye, Taylor Swift shows how she stays strong while under pressure from the world. Even now, as the star continues her rise through the Billboard charts, it's inspiring to see that she’s just like the rest of us.

8Ella Fitzgerald: Just One Of Those Things

As one of the most iconic jazz singers of all time, few know the story behind Ella’s personal life, from her famous 1934 performance at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York, to her trailblazing career that created a path for so many singers to come. Check it out on Netflix.

9Blackpink: Light Up The Sky

This Netflix documentary, directed by Caroline Suh, shows how vulnerable the world's most beloved South Korean girl group, Blackpink, are backstage. It shows who they are as people and individuals — not just characters — who changed K-pop from a boy band phenomenon to something fueled by feminism and girl power.

10Coded Bias

Director Shalini Kantayya directed this PBS documentary, which looks at how computer algorithms used in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and facial recognition systems are “embedded” with race and gender biases. Some brilliant minds interviewed in this documentary include chats with computer scientist Joy Buolamwini.


Tags: Empowerment, movies

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Written By

Nadja Sayej

Nadja Sayej is journalist based in New York City writing about design, architecture and culture for Architectural Digest, Vanity Fair and Barron's, among others. See Full Bio

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