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American History Documentaries You Haven’t Heard Of

Updated April 16, 2021 29.9k views14 items

We’re all familiar with the famous Ken Burns documentaries, but any American history buff worth their salt knows you won’t win Jeopardy! or even a game of Trivial Pursuit with common knowledge. Digging into history’s muddled weeds is what will score you that bonus question at game night or make you a fascinating guest at a dinner party. At the very least, you’ll have a surefire way to impress your father-in-law.

So much of our time is spent consuming fiction, and why not? Imagined worlds are plenty entertaining. But the realm of learning is nonfiction territory. Documentary films are a beautifully curated way to consume your edu-tainment. While nonfiction books and podcasts certainly have their place, seeing and hearing your history in such a considered way sears your newfound knowledge into your mind.

Filmmakers spend years collecting information before crafting their movies. One doesn't choose to make a documentary unless one is thoroughly fascinated with the subject matter. The filmmakers' job is to take their viewers on a journey, engaging senses and emotions, and many do it masterfully.

Learning American history isn't just the stark practice of memorization we may have experienced in seventh grade. It can, when handled with care, lead us to think about our ancestors, contemplate how far our country has come, and frame current events in a new light. Documentary filmmakers have a vital job, and these lesser-known entries deserve our attention. Even when they're hard to watch - and they sometimes are - we're brighter for having taken the time. A brilliant documentary is the best darn class you can take in under two hours.

  • Photo: Fauberg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans / PBS

    Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story Of Black New Orleans

    PBS film Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans (2008) documents the legacy of a neighborhood that is home to one of the country’s oldest African American communities. The documentary reaches into the centuries-old backstory of Tremé, as well as its more recent - and tragic - history.

    One Amazon review reads, “The film provides a poignant look at the effects Hurricane Katrina had on Tremé's residents, their deep love and appreciation for the neighborhood's history (where, long before [enslavement] ended in the South, free Blacks thrived, owning property and running businesses) in light of the damage caused by the hurricane, and their hope for its future.” 

    Faubourg Tremé won the Golden Gate Award for Documentary Feature at the 2008 San Francisco Film Festival, and is available for $2.99 on Amazon.

     

    Watch here.

  • Photo: Nightmares in Red, White and Blue / Lorber Films

    The gruesome, awesome Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue chronicles the history of horror films in the United States. The 2009 flick boasts a perfect 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. (That’s the result of only six reviews, but as it is also free with a Prime subscription, you can decide for yourself whether or not it's deserved.) The film features interviews with such genre giants as George Romero, Roger Corman, and John Carpenter, and is narrated by the legendary Lance Henriksen. 

    Lest you think you know all there is to know about American horror, Dennis Harvey states in his review in Variety that “[w]hile the focus is primarily on well-known titles and directors, the pic does take time to spotlight a few lesser-known gems.” 

     

    Watch here.

  • Photo: Pushcarts and Plantations / Apple West Productions

    Pushcarts And Plantations: Jewish Life In Louisiana

    Pushcarts and Plantations spotlights another vibrant and historic community in Louisiana. The 1998 documentary hears stories from historians and locals to paint a picture of 300 years of Jewish life in all parts of Louisiana. 

    “In light of New Orleans’s recent history, Pushcarts and Plantations has a relevance that the filmmaker couldn’t have anticipated,” says a review on The Jewish Channel. “Post-Katrina discussions have centered on a desire to revisit the city’s past and explore how New Orleans’s distinct personality affects its residents. Jews have always been strong contributors to, and greatly influenced by, that unique personality.”

    Though the film is currently unavailable online, you should be able to request it through your local library.

     

    Look for it here.

  • Photo: The Forgotten Frontier / Carousel Film & Video

    The Forgotten Frontier

    Silent film The Forgotten Frontier (1931) reenacts the late-1920s story of a clinic set up by nurses and midwives to care for the residents of the Kentucky Appalachian Mountains. In 1996, the classic documentary was chosen to be preserved in the United States National Film Registry, having been deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

    Stream it for free in the National Library of Medicine’s digital collection.

     

    Watch here.