Photo: PICTURED Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel CR: Netflix
Photo: PICTURED Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel CR: Netflix

8 inspiring documentaries to stream during tough times

There is no shortage of documentaries that delve into humanity’s dark side, our predilection for destructive and often short-sighted pursuits and actions. 

But while those often dominate the zeitgeist (”Tiger King” anyone?), the growth in streaming services has enabled more documentaries of a more positive variety to squeeze their way in. 

So, here’s a sampling of inspiring documentaries on different streaming services from the past few years: 

Photo: PICTURED Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel CR :Netflix

“A Secret Love” Netflix (2020)

Back in the 1940s and ‘50s, gay relationships were considered so taboo, they were kept hidden for fear of ostracization from family, friends and work. 

In this sweet, sometimes poignant newly released documentary produced by Ryan Murphy (”Glee,” “An American Horror Story”), two women share their lives as closeted lesbians for much of their relationship but are now open about it.

For decades, Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel told most people they were platonic “friends” or “cousins,” keeping their truth to a tight circle of accepting people. But as acceptance of LBGTQ people grew over the years, they opened up their inner world to their families in 2009 when they were in their 80s. 

A great nephew, Chris Bolan, captured their stories on film over four years and even found a cache of 8-millimeter footage the couple had kept in the basement. 

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“Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” Netflix (2020)

Five decades ago during the hippie age, a Catskills sleepaway summer camp focused on kids with disabilities. 

The camp treated the kids with a level of respect seldom seen in the real world where they were often mistreated, mocked or ignored. It also gave them an opportunity to be regular teenagers. 

This documentary blends vintage video from the time and contemporary interviews with former campers. Many of its attendees became ardent disability rights activists. 

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Photo: "Salt Fat Acid Heat" is on Netflix as a four-part documentary

“Salt Fat Acid Heat” Netflix (2018)

Samin Nosrat, a Persian American, travels to four different countries to explore commonalities of what makes great-tasting food in this four-part documentary and the title answers that question: “Salt Fat Acid Heat.”

It’s a mix of travelogue and instructional cooking and based on a best-selling book of the same title. 

Nosrat’s naturalistic, open personality endears her to the camera. As she told The Washington Post: “I’m a total ham, and I have no problem being portrayed as a person who doesn’t know everything. I think it’s kind of a teaching tool, because if you see that I might mess something up, and yet we keep going and we make something nice, then maybe you’ll feel like you can mess something up.”

She also places women front and center in part because they do the bulk of the cooking but rarely get the glory for it. 

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“The Biggest Little Farm” Hulu (2019)

An idealistic middle-class Los Angeles couple decides to buy a 200-acre piece of barren and attempts to create an old-school farm.

While this sounds like “Green Acres” redux, the Chesters make a real effort to make the farm organic, eco-friendly and environmentally diverse with an irrigation pond, a worm compost facility and a multi-fruit orchard. Over eight years, this lushly shot  film showcases both the charms and challenges the family faces, from the birth of piglets to vicious coyote attacks on chickens.

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“Apollo 11” Hulu (2019) 

This is not a traditional history documentary. Todd Douglas Miller gathered existing film of the 1969 moon landing with never-seen-before footage and audio to create an as-it’s-happening vibe. 

This means no historians intoning perspective and social commentary or updates on what happened after the fact. Instead, narration is provided by Walter Cronkite, NASA announcers and staff. Some of the imagery is incredibly rich and crisp for that time era. And you don’t just see the astronauts but the worker bees and technicians making it all happen behind the scenes as well as excited spectators ready to capture history in the making. 

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“I Am Big Bird” Amazon Prime (2014)

While Big Bird is ubiquitous as a symbol of “Sesame Street,” this film honors the man inside the costume. His name is Caroll Spinney, and he played the role for more than 45 years. 

Though he died in 2019, he was still working this demanding costume at age 81 when this documentary was shot around 2014. He also played Oscar the Grouch. 

But there is nothing grouchy about this biography, which falls on the bright, cheery and affectionate side. 

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“The Elephant Queen” Apple TV+ (2020)

In footage shot over four years, Athena and her extended family of wild elephants live on the Kenyan savanna.

Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor narrates, and the film itself is beautifully shot. Athena raises kids and during a drought, seeks new sources of water. At one point, she and the others appear to honor a dead elephant. Other animals get the limelight, too, including a bullfrog, a goose and even a dung beetle. 

This narrowly focused documentary is geared to younger kids, and its producer chose not to really delve into the broader issues impacting the animals such as poaching and climate change. 

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“Happy” Tubi, free for anyone (2011)

Most people talk about wanting to be happy, but it’s not a subject researchers explore as much as depression, anxiety and grief. Roko Belic decided to talk to experts and individuals worldwide about the concept of happiness and how to achieve it.

Some of the solutions seem obvious — regular exercise, being out in nature, building  compassion through charity and creating a network of family and friends. But the documentary tries to inspire people to actually pursue those actions rather than focus on wealth for wealth’s sake. Belic’s bottom line: once basic necessities are met, money has relatively little to do with satisfaction in life. 

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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