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7 Great Documentaries About Remarkable Women, From ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’ to ‘The Beaches of Agnes’

From civil rights crusaders to pioneering businesswomen, here's a must-see list of great non-fiction films about some of the world's most powerful women.

Two of the world’s most influential women — pioneering primatologist Jane Goodall and lauded writer Joan Didion — are both on the receiving end of insightful new documentaries this year, both of which are hitting screens in the coming weeks. Brett Morgen’s “Jane” (which opened just last week to deservedly rave reviews) tracks the early years of Goodall’s work in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park, combining both new interviews with the still-trailblazing scientist and early footage lensed by her former husband Hugo van Lawick (a celebrated animal photographer) to tell a full-bodied story about Goddall’s amazing ethic and her tremendous empathy for the animals she’s made the center of her life.

This week, Griffin Dunne’s look at Didion’s life, “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold,” will arrive on Netflix, following her own early years and her current state as a literary icon. Both Goodall and Didion are long-deserving of such deep looks at their lives, both from the professional side and the more personal, and they join a long line of other powerful women who have seen their lives transformed into important documentaries.

Here are seven other great documentaries about remarkable women, from “The Beaches of Agnes” to “What Happened, Miss Simone?” and plenty in between.

“What Happened, Miss Simone?”

Nina Simone What Happened Miss Simone

“What Happened, Miss Simone?”

Netflix

Liz Garbus’ 2016 Oscar nominee was one to watch from the jump: it debuted as one of the opening night films at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival as Netflix’s first commissioned documentary; the streaming outfit then released it that June, and wisely pushed the insightful and startlingly comprehensive for awards glory and attention in the following months. Garbus dug deep for the film, which includes scores of previously unreleased archival footage, plus a number of interviews with Simone’s daughter and friends. The film follows both Simone’s early years, as she became the “high priestess of soul,” but also reckons with her later desires to actively participate in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, even at great personal and professional cost. A thoughtful — and thought-provoking — look at a singular artist and person, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” offers insight and intent, but it also stirs up questions as to what the world’s best creators actually owe, well, the world itself.

“Gloria: In Her Own Words”

“Gloria: In Her Own Words”

Peter W. Kunhardt’s 2011 HBO documentary appropriately puts the power into its subject’s hands, cobbling together copious interviews with the women’s liberation pioneer (“in her own words” indeed), alongside archival footage, vintage photographs, and even clips from some of her earliest interviews (including interviewees as famous as Barbara Walters, Helen Gurley Brown, Phil Donahue, and Larry King). Steinem gives voice to her own history, complete with struggles and successes in equal measure, both personal and professional. Though principally focused on Steinem, Kunhardt’s film also makes room for footage of other important Steinem contemporaries, including National Organization for Women (NOW) co-founder Betty Friedan, congresswoman Bella Abzug, and civil rights advocate Flo Kennedy.

“Maya Angelou And Still I Rise”

“Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise”

It’s unfair to cram any life — least of all the truly extraordinary ones — into a neat, two-hour package meant for handy cinematic consumption, but filmmakers Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack attempt to battle that back in their admirably comprehensive documentary “Maya Angelou And Still I Rise.” The film endeavors to cover all of the poet and activist’s incredible life, complete with significant and compelling interviews featuring the subject herself, a series of essential talking heads and plenty of archival footage, aiming to match the spark and originality of the woman it attempts to honor. The film will likely inspire viewers to want to learn more — especially about Angelou’s years in Egypt and Ghana, which don’t get much much screen time — but her early years are given copious attention. If nothing else, “And Still I Rise” makes plain not only why the caged bird sang, but how she found her voice in the first place.

“The Beaches of Agnes”

“The Beaches of Agnes”

At age 88, the indomitable and highly influential filmmaker Agnes Varda continues to tease about the end of her career, while also churning out art told through experimental approaches (she just premiered yet another “final film” at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, “Faces/Places,” to rapturous reviews). Varda’s contributions to cinema and feminism have been the centerpiece of her life’s work, and early films like “L’opera-mouffe” make the case for an obvious link between her early visual diaries and the current documentary landscape. That same desire to chronicle her own life moves in a different manner in her 2008 documentary, “The Beaches of Agnes,” an appropriate mix of the meditative and the amusing. As Varda returns to the places and people that shaped her life, she also readies herself to say goodbye to them — if only materially — while still bringing her wholly distinct sense of humor and self to the film. We should all be so lucky to be as happy, and as talented, as this living legend.

“Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision”

“Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision”

Freida Lee Mock’s 1994 feature chronicles artist Maya Lin, best known for her creation of such seminal monuments as the Vietnam Memorial Wall and the Civil Rights Fountain Memorial. Mostly focused on Lin’s work on the Vietnam Memorial Wall (viewers who recently watched “The Vietnam War” series will find the film to be an insightful and helpful addition to the section of Ken Burns’ film which zeroes in on similar material), Mock doesn’t skimp on the controversy and pain stirred up by Lin’s design, which won a wrenching competition and was ultimately completed in 1982. Mock’s film goes on to track Lin’s other work, but the lasting impact of that first big project is hard to shake, and so is Lin’s talent.

“Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed”

“Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed”

Shola Lynch’s 2004 festival favorite follows Shirley Chisholm, a pioneering politician who first made waves when she became the first black woman elected to Congress. Four years later, she campaigned to become the Democratic Party’s nominee for President of the United States (she ultimately lost out to George McGovern), which made her both the first black candidate for a major party’s nomination consideration and the first woman to run for the Democratic nomination (Patsy Mink later joined the race, making 1972 a banner year for firsts) in U.S. history. Lynch’s film follows Chisholm’s bid for the nomination, from her first announcement all the way to the Democratic National Convention. It’s fierce and funny, and somehow still totally unpredictable.

“Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and The Farm Midwives”

“Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and The Farm Midwives”

Sara Lamm and Mary Wigmore’s revelatory documentary gamely tackles a two-pronged approach: first introducing viewers to the work and philosophy of pioneering midwife Gaskin (and the eponymous “farm” where she educated her fellow midwives), then showing the current (thriving!) state of the 1970s hippie commune where Gaskin’s work first gained prominence. Combining the history of modern American midwifery with stories about the women who practice it today — and some deeply personal looks at a number of births — the film is a visceral and joyous exploration of an enduring legacy and the woman who made it her business to change the way women feel about one of the most personal things they can do: give birth.

Other films to check out: “He Named Me Malala,” “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs,” “Anita,” “20 Feet From Stardom,” “Sonita,” “Cameraperson,” and “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.”

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