10 Documentaries That Actually Made a Difference

A scene from Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line (1988).
A scene from Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line (1988).
The Criterion Collection

Lots of documentaries spark a conversation, whether it’s about social justice or climate change. But all too often, that discussion fades away after a month or two of passionate debate. These 10 films didn’t just get people talking—they spurred court appeals, policy revisions, and even fast-food menu changes. Here’s how each of them made a real, tangible impact that's still being felt today.

1. Titicut Follies (1967)

For nearly a quarter of a century, Frederick Wiseman’s unsettling 1967 documentary on the mistreatment of patients at Massachusetts's Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane was banned—supposedly in the interest of those patients' right to privacy. Even though only a limited number of people saw the film between 1967 and 1991, it’s still credited with spurring the closure or reform of several major psychiatric hospitals. Plus, if Wiseman is to be believed, Bridgewater began using Titicut Follies as a training tool for employees on what not to do at work.

2. The Thin Blue Line (1988)

Errol Morris tore into the evidence and testimony against Randall Dale Adams, a death row inmate accused of murdering a police officer, in this 1988 true crime documentary. His counter-argument was so convincing that it helped overturn Adams’s conviction, just days before he was set to be killed by lethal injection.

3. Bowling for Columbine (2002)

After Michael Moore confronted Kmart executives over their sale of firearms and ammunition, the company announced it would stop selling bullets in all of its stores. The chain of events unfolds in Moore’s Oscar-winning documentary, which explores the causes of mass shootings and America’s broader relationship with guns.

4. Super Size Me (2004)

Less than two months after Morgan Spurlock’s documentary Super Size Me premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, McDonald’s announced the end of “super-sizing.” The fast food corporation claimed the decision had nothing to do with Spurlock’s grotesque Big Mac binging, but considering the rapid timeline, no one really believed Mickey D’s.

5. The Cove (2009)

Some reports question how much The Cove actually impacted dolphin hunting in the Japanese city of Taiji. The practice is still going on today, but the number of dolphins captured nationwide has definitely dropped, from 23,000 in 2009 to less than 6000 in 2015. The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums also suspended its Japanese branch last spring for accepting dolphins acquired in the Taiji hunt; this move forced the branch to formally ban members from buying or exporting any dolphins from Taiji drive fisheries.

6. PARADISE LOST TRILOGY (1996-2011)

The Paradise Lost trilogy didn’t just bring widespread attention to the West Memphis Three murder case, it also earned the defendants crucial celebrity support. Johnny Depp, Peter Jackson, and Eddie Vedder personally donated millions of dollars to help Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. appeal their conviction. And it worked. The three men were released in 2011, after serving more than 18 years in prison.

7. Gasland (2010)

An academic study found that Josh Fox’s Oscar-nominated documentary on fracking led to greater online searching and social media chatter, increased media coverage, and local anti-fracking mobilization. Guess all those critics who compared it to Silent Spring had a point.

8. Inside Job (2010)

Two Columbia University staffers appeared in this exposé of the 2008 financial crisis: Economist/professor Frederic Mishkin and Business School dean Glenn Hubbard. Both men were less than transparent about their professional connections to the finance world. The film reveals that Mishkin wrote a paper about Iceland’s economy without disclosing the $124,000 he’d received from the country’s chamber of commerce. Hubbard, meanwhile, grew combative when questioned about his many consulting clients. A few months after Inside Job’s release, Columbia released much stricter disclosure rules for faculty who work with Wall Street, and the economics department chair credited the movie (which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2011) as a driving force.

9. THE INVISIBLE WAR (2012)

Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War offers a harrowing look at the way rape cases in the U.S. military are mishandled. Mere days after watching it, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced a policy change in the way these crimes are investigated. This was before the documentary was even released. After its debut, one of the generals featured in the film was replaced, politicians like Kirsten Gillibrand proposed even more radical policy changes, and the Pentagon introduced two new programs to “change the culture” surrounding rape allegations.

10. Blackfish (2013)

Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 documentary about captive orcas quickly proved to be bad business for SeaWorld. Bands ranging from The Beach Boys to Heart swiftly canceled shows at SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Tampa (which SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment owns). Attendance and revenue dropped. Southwest Airlines ended its 26-year business partnership with the company. The House of Representatives got involved. Then finally, SeaWorld’s new CEO announced the park would end its orca breeding program and modify all orca performances, so the whales would no longer be forced to vamp for audiences. Instead, they’ll simply swim and communicate with each other, just like they would in the ocean.

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

Buy it: Amazon

3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

Buy it: Amazon

4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

Buy it: SlumberCloud

7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

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Hamilton Cast Discusses the History and Impact of the Musical in New Disney+ Exclusive

The real work begins after the final bow.
The real work begins after the final bow.
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

On Friday, July 10, Disney+ will release Hamilton: History Has Its Eyes on You, a conversation with key original cast members and creators that covers everything from personal memories to thoughts on how the musical can expand our understanding of America’s past.

Moderated by Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts, the program features Lin-Manuel Miranda, director Thomas Kail, Leslie Odom Jr. (Aaron Burr), Phillipa Soo (Eliza Hamilton), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Angelica Schuyler), Daveed Diggs (Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson), and Christopher Jackson (George Washington).

Also in attendance is Annette Gordon-Reed, a Harvard University history professor and leading scholar on Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his enslaved maid, Sally Hemings. Hemings is mentioned briefly in Hamilton, and the contentious topic of slavery crops up in a few pithy insults directed at various characters, but some viewers have criticized how the production largely glosses over the issues and glorifies the Founding Fathers as sympathetic and respectable leaders.

Hamilton: History Has Its Eyes on You is a chance for Miranda and his team to discuss the decisions that went into fitting a long, complex history into a series of musical numbers—and for Gordon-Reed to offer a historian’s perspective on how we should interpret Hamilton.

“The really important thing, I think, is for people after they’ve watched it to go and find out more,” she says in a preview clip on Good Morning America. (If you’re wondering where to start, you might want to take a closer look at some of those history-packed lyrics.)

You can stream the special starting tomorrow, which leaves plenty of time to watch the musical on Disney+ again … and again. If you still need a subscription to Disney+, head here to sign up.

[h/t Good Morning America]