Six Documentaries Supported by the National Endowment for the Arts to Stream Now

By Carolyn Coons
Film projector

Photo by Noom Peerapong on Unsplash

If you’re anything like me, you can spend longer scrolling through seemingly endless options on multiple streaming services than actually watching something. There is no shortage of excellent film and television online today. That’s where this list comes in! If you’re at a loss for what to watch, put down the remote and let me guide you through some of the most captivating documentaries supported by National Endowment for the Arts grants available to stream. The Arts Endowment has a long history of supporting documentary films, believing in their ability to inspire change, reveal hidden truths, and illuminate deserving subjects. I personally love documentaries and am often more deeply affected by the stories they tell than movies or TV shows. These documentaries are no exception. 

My first recommendation feels perfect for this moment considering the resounding success of Pixar’s Soul, Sylvie’s Love, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. All are beautiful, inspiring portrayals of jazz musicians both real and imagined. If you enjoyed any or all of these films, check out Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band. Mary Lou Williams was a pianist and composer, one of the unsung heroes of jazz. The grant Firelight Media received from the Arts Endowment supported post-production and completion costs for the documentary. It is available to stream on Kanopy. 

The HBO mini-series Chernobyl enthralled audiences and won numerous Golden Globes and Emmy’s back in 2019. If you were a fan of the show, The Babushkas of Chernobyl should be next on your list. This documentary follows a group of women who chose to stay in their ancestral homeland despite the ravages of nuclear disaster and is a multi-award-winner in its own right. The grant Women Make Movies, Inc. received from the Arts Endowment supported post-production costs. It is available to stream on Amazon and a number of other services.  

Finding Kukan is a bit of documentary inception. The original Kukan documented China’s resistance to the Japanese occupation during World War II and won an honorary Academy Award in 1942. The documentary was then lost to time until filmmaker Robin Lung discovered a badly damaged copy. Finding Kukan tells Lung’s story as she uncovers the story behind Kukan, including the Chinese-American filmmaker who produced it. Finding Kukan is essential viewing, delving into what it means to be a woman of color in the film industry, both in the past and today. ShadowLight Productions received two grants from the Arts Endowment to support production, post-production, outreach costs for the film. Outreach costs included the creation of this viewer's guide on the Finding Kukan website. The film is available to stream on Kanopy. 

The documentary Black Ballerina confronts racial inequality in the predominantly white sphere of ballet. The film follows multiple generations of ground-breaking Black dancers who paved the way for modern icons like Misty Copeland and the barriers that still exist for dancers of color. Black Ballerina is available on Amazon. When you finish watching, might I also recommend listening to the filmmaker Frances McElroy on the NEA Arts Works podcast? Shirley Road Productions received two grants from the Arts Endowment for production, post-production, and outreach costs for the film. It is available to stream on Amazon. 

If you miss live theatre, the Emmy-nominated Working in the Theatre series from American Theatre Wing is a way to fill the void. Recent episodes document how theatre has adapted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, while older episodes have become a harrowing time capsule of what used to be. Working in the Theatre pays homage to workers who now face massive unemployment as a result of the pandemic and are struggling to sustain their craft. American Theatre Wing has received three grants from the Arts Endowment to support travel, production, and outreach costs for the show. Episodes are available to stream on the American Theatre Wing website. 

My last recommendation isn’t available quite yet, but mark your calendars for February 1, 2021, because 9to5: The Story of a Movement is one to watch. If you know the Dolly Parton anthem and movie of the same name, you may already be familiar with the 1970s movement of American working women who dared to demand better from their employers. Community Media Productions Group Inc. received a grant from the Arts Endowment to support the completion of the film. The film will be available on the PBS Video App in February, but if you can’t wait, there are some upcoming virtual screenings before the PBS premiere.