10 Spellbinding True Crime Documentaries You Must See
Deep down, we all want to know a little more about the dark underbelly of society. After all, in reality a criminal mind could be hidden in a neighbor, friend, or even spouse. Stepping into the world of those affected by criminality is fascinating. And what better way to gain full access to their perspective than through documentaries?
Warning: Some of the following documentaries include extremely graphic images and disturbing details of criminal acts.
With some truly gut-wrenching twists, this documentary will keep you on the edge of your seat and all but guarantee a sleepless night if you make it to the end. An astonishingly moving film, Dear Zachary was conceived by the acclaimed documentary filmmaker Kurt Kuenne after his best friend was murdered by an ex-girlfriend.
In memory of his friend, Kuenne drives across North America to interview the many people that the late Dr. Andrew Bagby touched during his short life. The film takes you on an emotional roller coaster after it’s discovered that Andrew Bagby impregnated his murderer right before his untimely death. She eventually gives birth to a baby boy—the Zachary of the title.
As Bagby’s parents fight to gain custody of the child, they must communicate with the person they hate the most—-their son’s killer, who is set free while awaiting trial. What follows are the devastating consequences of a tragically flawed judicial system.
9Just, Melvin: Just Evil
A truly difficult film to watch, Just, Melvin: Just Evil tells the painful story of a family struggling to come to terms with the legacy of their monstrous patriarch, the pedophile and suspected murderer Melvin Just. The persistence of abuse from generation to generation and the inaction of the household’s maternal figures is absolutely appalling. Particularly heartbreaking is a mother’s insinuation that a physically and mentally disabled daughter starved for attention. The daughter sadly recalls: “If he got it a quarter of the way inside of me I would get paid a quarter.”
Family members affected by the abuse reflect on their experiences in an eerily calm manner, which also extends to a discussion of Melvin Just’s connection to the murder of a young female nurse. The viewer is a fly on the wall during a confrontation with the molester where he unconvincingly proclaims his innocence. The effect is enough to run chills down your spine.
8Capturing The Friedmans
This Academy Award–nominated film captures a seemingly normal middle-class family turned on its head when two members are charged with child abuse. Their world begins to unravel when a sting operation catches schoolteacher Arnold Friedman receiving child pornography.
After an investigation, Arnold and his son Jesse are accused of molesting young boys during a computer class taught in the family’s basement. A frenzy of media attention ensues as Arnold and Jesse are released to await trial.
The film, directed by Andrew Jarecki, includes home video footage that provides an intriguing insight into the increasingly tense atmosphere in the Friedman house. Although Arnold eventually pleads guilty to child abuse, his sons and relatives have an oddly fierce allegiance to him—and a shocking disdain for their mother, who understandably struggles to come to terms with the dissolution of her family. Are the sons rightfully loyal or strongly in denial? You be the judge.
7There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane
An eye-opening documentary that showcases the extent of our inability to cope with tragedy,There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane tells the tragic story of a respectable suburban mom who causes a head-on collision while driving on the wrong side of a New York highway in 2009. As well as Diane herself, the crash kills the four children in her minivan and three adults in the other vehicle.
A toxicology report reveals Diane was under the influence of alcohol and marijuana at the time of the crash. Eyewitnesses attest to seeing her driving erratically for miles, vomiting by the roadside, and then fatally entering the turnpike in the wrong direction.
However, Diane’s family refuse to accept that a beloved wife and mother could put her children in danger by driving while drunk and high. They dispute the findings of the toxicology report and search for a way to clear her name—a search that continues to this day.
6The Cheshire Murders
This acclaimed HBO documentary examines the aftermath of a senseless and horrific outbreak of violence in the quiet suburb of Cheshire, Connecticut. In 2007, two local crooks target a family for theft after tailing them from a neighborhood grocery store. They return to the home in the middle of the night to find less money than expected.
After restraining the family, the intruders wait until the morning and drive the mother to the bank to withdraw $15,000. The family hopes that the money will secure their release. However, what happens next is an escalating whirlwind of torture, sexual assault, and murder—leaving only one survivor.
The heinous crime, a missed police opportunity to rescue the family, and the community’s struggle to find closure are documented with considerable compassion. The story is even more frightening because the disturbing crime could have happened anywhere.
5The Central Park Five
Named by the New York Times as the fifth-best documentary of 2012, The Central Park Five will make you squirm with anger at the terrible injustice perpetrated by the US legal system. In 1989, five African-American teenagers are incorrectly identified as suspects in the rape of a white woman in Central Park, quickly creating a media firestorm.
Amid public pressure to close the case, NYPD detectives use harsh interrogation tactics against frightened minors. Under extreme stress, the kids point fingers at each other and make false statements on camera, sealing their fates in the media and in court—despite DNA and circumstantial evidence that strongly suggests their innocence.
By documenting the heartbreaking situation faced by five young, underprivileged boys who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, The Central Park Five shines a light on racial injustice and the long road to redemption for those falsely imprisoned.
In Shenandoah, award-winning photographer David Turnley examines racial tensions in the small town of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania following the brutal murder of a Mexican man in a deserted playground by a gang of local high school football stars.
What follows is an attempted cover-up by local police in an isolated town that loves football. After this fails, the town finds itself split between those who believe the law must take its course and a vocal group of residents who support the players’ innocence and dislike anyone who believes otherwise.
The film brings to life the tensions in many parts of small-town America, where residents are passionately loyal to old traditions but face difficult economic times—sparking misplaced resentment toward recent immigrant communities.
3The Brandon Teena Story
The inspiration for the acclaimed movie Boys Don’t Cry, The Brandon Teena Story follows the life and death of Brandon Teena, born Teena Brandon, a biologically female youth who chose to secretly live as a man in Falls City, Nebraska. As he struggles to find his place in society, Brandon commits check fraud and begins a relationship with a local woman.
Brandon becomes popular among his peers, until his sudden outing results in horrific violence and sexual abuse at the hands of his male “friends.” When the crimes are reported to the police, they seem more interested in Brandon’s sexuality and fail to take action to prevent a fatal second attack.
The documentary features jarring interviews with Brandon’s friends, family, girlfriends, and murderers. It will leave you reeling in shock at the cruelty and contempt for a young transgender person facing an identity crisis in a rural town.
2West Of Memphis
Directed by Amy J. Berg and produced by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Damien Echols (one of the accused), West Of Memphis is a terrifying insider look at the abuse of judicial power, the phenomena of false confessions, and the plight of the wrongfully accused.
When three young boys are found hogtied, castrated, and murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993, law enforcement suspect it’s a Satanist cult ritual and quickly focus the investigation on three local teen pariahs, who are soon convicted of the crimes. It’s later determined that much of the “ritualistic” mutilation may have been caused by wild animals. DNA evidence fails to link any of the convicted to the crime and witnesses are found to have committed perjury.
The documentary takes the viewer on a wild ride through the campaign to exonerate the West Memphis Three, who attract support from celebrities like Johnny Depp. One of the convicted speaks his harrowing truth from death row and the community rallies for a fateful retrial.
1The House Of Suh
This award-winning crime documentary brings about bizarrely compassionate feelings for the murderer, second-generation Korean-American Andrew Suh, a charismatic high school athlete. Suh’s traditional parents migrated to America for a better life and favored him over his sister because of his gender.
The sister in question is the conniving Catherine Suh, a rebellious family outsider who is detested by her father. Despite her unsupportive parents, Catherine grows into a successful business owner and eventually becomes Andrew’s guardian.
When their mother tragically dies from a violent attack at a store they owned, Catherine convinces Andrew of an unproven conspiracy theory surrounding her death. The theory results in a second homicide—orchestrated by Catherine and carried out by Andrew.
The film questions whether Andrew Suh, a convicted murderer serving a life sentence, is a victim of dysfunctional familial circumstances or a cold-blooded killer.
Taylor Gordon: Freelance Blogger Extraordinaire.