In honor of Independence Day, I present to you, in my mind, the four most patriotic and independent-minded American documentaries.

What’s more patriotic than waving a flag and drinking a Bud? How about baring witness to the struggles of Americans that have made America great? Or, a well-made argument that pushes America to be better? Two of these films look back, and the other two look forward. (With an honorable mention going to The People Speak, an onstage spoken word doc inspired by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, with the likes of Josh Brolin, Viggo Mortensen and Marisa Tomei giving voice to the people.)

The Civil War
This Ken Burns film retells the Civil War in a way that made it immediate, fascinating and entertaining. In other words, for the first time, this key moment in the evolution of the United States was interesting, with more than 40 million viewers watching. Hey, knowing (and therefore honoring) our history is one of the most patriotic acts we are capable of.


Civil rights protesters outside the Woolworth Building
Eyes on the Prize
This 14-hour series about the Civil Rights Movement reminds me of what it was like to peruse an encyclopedia as a child (yeah, I was that kind of kid). There’s so much here, you can dip in on any of the hour-long episodes to enrich yourself on this vital moment that changed American history. Told by the people who were there, and with stunning archival footage, it brings it all to life in such a vital way.


An Inconvenient Truth
Why this? Maybe because, to this day, it still amazes me that this 2006 documentary about global warming features a politician, Al Gore, who reached near the highest of heights in politics, and his acutely researched analysis of the dire condition of our environment. Intelligence, concern and Earth-loving are just not what one usually associates with a Washington, D.C., stiff, but Gore proves here that maybe we can have some faith in our great (resist the eye roll, please) American political system.


Inside Job
I probably wouldn’t have included this film here if it weren’t for the last shot of the Statue of Liberty, which follows Charles Ferguson’s stunningly clear dissection of the current economic mess we’re currently in. No one else mustered the ability to produce such a clear critique of the whole U.S. financial system — from the politicians to Wall Street to our educators — which demonstrates an independence of thought that ought to be celebrated. And then to put Lady Liberty at the end and tell us that a more just nation is worth fighting for… It made my heart soar more than The Star-Spangled Banner.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen