Best True Crime Documentaries
Art and Experience:
True crime documentaries can horrify — and galvanize — viewers, leading to the release of wrongfully accused convicts and sometimes reform. Errol Morris expanded the notion of what documentaries can be with his 1988 doc-noir “The Thin Blue Line,” which controversially recreated the killing of a Dallas cop and led to the release of Randall Adams after 12 years behind bars. In recent years, there’s been an explosion of format-busting docuseries such as Ezra Edelman’s five-part “O.J.: Made in America” for ESPN in 2016, which won an Emmy and an Oscar, not that long after Andrew Jarecki’s multi-part HBO series “The Jinx” won two Emmys for its riveting look at real-estate heir Robert Durst, now on trial for murder.
Other notable true crime documentaries in recent years include the “Paradise Lost” trilogy, which led to the eventual release of the so-called West Memphis Three and Paramount Network’s “Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story.” These stories have staying power: “The Staircase,” a docuseries about the North Carolina murder of Kathleen Peterson, is being adapted into an HBO Max limited series starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette.
Here are 10 noteworthy true-crime documentaries dating back to the late 1980s.
Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story
Jay-Z was among the exec producers for this six-part Paramount Network docuseries about Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Black boy killed by George Zimmerman, that sparked conversation when it premiered in 2018. Writer-directors Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason examine Martin’s 2012 death at the hands of Zimmerman in Florida as well as prosecutorial failures and the #BlackLivesMatter movement in this series, exploring racial tensions in America as well as the history of the controversial Stand Your Ground law.
3 ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets
HBO picked up the rights to Marc Silver’s docu chronicling the 2012 shooting death of a Black teenager in a Florida gas station after it won a special jury prize for social impact at Sundance in 2015. The film centers on the murder trial of Michael Dunn, who fired gunshots into a car of four Black teenagers during an altercation over their playing rap music loudly. Variety’s review lauded Silver’s docu for wisely letting a complex issue play out in the viewer’s mind without debating it onscreen,” adding, “this vivid case, in which cameras had full courtroom access, requires no outside commentary for its larger social relevance to be glaringly clear.”
This 2012 British documentary focuses on a strange case of stolen identity: a young man in Spain claims to a grieving Texas family that he is their 16-year-old son who has been missing for three years. But he turns out to be a French conman. Noted the Variety review: “With production values aplenty, ‘The Imposter’ makes slick work of its wily subject, using atmospheric reenactments and stark, soul-baring interviews to explore a mind-boggling case of false identity,” adding that it “crackles with the open-ended intrigue of a good ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ episode. Directed by Barton Layton, it won a BAFTA award for outstanding debut by a British writer, director or producer.
Murder on a Sunday Morning
Jean-Xavier de Lestrade directed this HBO documentary about Brenton Butler, a 15-year-old Black boy accused of killing two tourists in Jacksonville, Fla., in 2000. Butler, on his way to apply for a job at a Blockbuster Video store, confessed but later said he had been physically coerced into it and was acquitted. The film won the documentary Oscar in 2002 and his family accepted a settlement with the city over Brenton’s treatment.
Paradise Lost Trilogy
Not since Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line” has the work of documentarians had more tangible influence on the cause of justice. The trilogy from Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky centered on the so-called West Memphis Three, a trio of teenagers accused of murdering boys during Satanic rituals in Arkansas. It began with 1996’s “Paradise Lost” and concluded with 2011’s “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” and the cause gained widespread media support over the year; the eventual release of the three accused men was widely attributed to the filmmakers’ perseverance in covering the story for the past 18 years. All three installments were Emmy nominated, and the first won; the last installment was also Oscar nominated.
Capturing the Friedmans
Andrew Jarecki, who would go on to transfix viewers with “The Jinx,” turned his lens on a Long Island family involved in a sex scandal for this 2003 HBO series. Nominated for an Oscar, it won two awards at Sundance. As Variety noted later, it was “much celebrated for its use of emotionally charged home movie footage in which the Friedmans documented their family’s own implosion — 18-year-old Jesse was arrested together with his father, Arnold, amid allegations that they had molested more than a dozen students in the after-school computer class Arnold taught at the family’s Great Neck home.”
OJ: Made In America
It’s hard to overstate the impact that “O.J.: Made in America” made on the true-crime documentary landscape in 2016. Ezra Edelman’s five-part ESPN series about the football star turned accused murderer of his wife Nicole earned an Oscar and an Emmy, forever upending the notions of what a documentary can be. Edelman pulled the lens back on USC football star turned pro and eventual actor O.J. Simpson to show the context of his eventual celebrity trial in L.A. Variety’s review praises the series for “adding rich contextual layers to the case, including a dive into the history of Los Angeles race relations that played such a central role in his acquittal.”
The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst
This 2015 HBO docuseries from Blumhouse won two Emmys and transfixed viewers with shocking details about wealthy real-estate heir turned accused murderer Robert Durst. Writer-director Andrew Jarecki captured a famous hot-mic moment that seemed to reinforce Durst’s guilt but raised some eyebrows among purists. Durst was arrested in 2016 and is on trial in L.A. for the murder of pal Susan Berman, having previously been accused of murdering his first wife, Kathie, in 1982. Variety correctly predicted that “Durst’s impassive demeanor ensures this six-part series will be widely discussed, trumping some artistic choices that, like Durst’s account of events, can easily be second-guessed.”
When the Sundance Channel picked up the U.S. rights to “The Staircase,” an eight-part true crime documentary that had already aired on the BBC, a programming exec told Variety she wasn’t bothered by its unusual length because “it’s as compelling as a thriller,” noting director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s “unfettered access to the families, the prosecutors and the defense attorneys.” The 2004 series centered on the 2001 murder of Kathleen Peterson and the arrest, trial and conviction of her husband, novelist Michael Peterson, despite his protestations of innocence. The director won an Oscar in 2002 for directing “Murder on a Sunday Morning” for HBO, which surely helped him gain access; each installment of “The Staircase” was structured as a cliffhanger. “The Staircase” won an IDA award for limited series and is being adapted into an HBO Max series starring Colin Firth, Toni Collette, Rosemarie DeWitt and Juliette Binoche.
The Thin Blue Line
Variety called Errol Morris’ noir-like investigation of a Dallas cop’s murder mesmerizing and strikingly original in its original review, but the film, released by Miramax in 1988, was controversial among documentary purists; the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences refused to consider it for an Oscar due to its use of reenactments. Its lasting impact is undeniable, however: the documentary uncovered evidence that led to Randall Adams, the man convicted of the murder, getting released from prison after 12 years behind bars. And it pioneered a wave of crime-scene reenactments in film and TV.