As the year comes to an end we’re looking back at the best documentaries, series, and movies of 2020. You might think you’ve seen every true crime show out there, but we’ve got a few new recommendations we bet you’ll love — and a few older ones that flew under the radar.
We’ll start with the latest — these are eight films, documentaries, and series we recommend that were released this year.
1. The Innocence Files
This powerful nine-part docuseries, tells the stories of eight clients of the Innocence Project and members of the Innocence Network. We were so honored to be featured and to see our clients’ journeys to justice in the spotlight. If you want to learn more about how official misconduct, the use of bite mark evidence (a debunked forensic method), and eyewitness misidentification contribute to wrongful conviction, we highly recommend this series. Available to stream on Netflix here.
2. Who Killed Malcolm X
Innocence Project clients were featured not just once, but twice in documentary series this year. “Who Killed Malcolm X” is a six-part series that seeks to address the many unanswered questions around the assassination of Malcolm X, including whether or not innocent people were convicted for his death. Our client, Muhammad Abdul Aziz, was one of three men arrested and convicted for the death of Malcolm X, but he has always maintained his innocence. Learn more about his case here and watch the series, which is available to stream on Netflix here.
3. How to Fix a Drug Scandal
This riveting docuseries details the misconduct of two drug lab technicians in Massachusetts, Sonja Farak and Annie Dookhan, and the resulting fallout. Ms. Farak and Ms. Dookhan worked at two different state labs, and though their cases were not related to one another, both were found to have falsified forensic evidence and tampered with drug evidence. The series also highlights the officials’ failure to appropriately handle the scandals and restore freedom to people who were potentially wrongly convicted. So far, at least 61,000 drug charges across more than 37,000 cases whose evidence they handled have been dismissed. Available to stream on Netflix here.
4. Trial 4
Sean Ellis was only 19 when he was arrested for the murder of a Boston police officer. He was convicted after three trials and spent 22 years in prison for a crime he did not commit before he was finally exonerated in 2018. Since then, Mr. Ellis has become a fierce advocate for reform and is a member of the New England Innocence Project’s board of trustees. “Trial 4” is his story. Available to stream on Netflix here.
5. The Trial of the Chicago 7
Aaron Sorkin’s latest film, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a dramatization of the prosecution and defense of a group of anti-Vietnam War protesters, who came to be known as the Chicago 7. Though not a documentary, the film portrays the very real issues of racial bias — including the judge’s orders to bind and gag the only Black defendant during the trial — and the injustice that persists in the criminal legal system today. Available to stream on Netflix here.
6. Murder on Middle Beach
Years after his mother’s murder, Madison Hamburg searches for answers. In this four-part series, Mr. Hamburg documents his efforts to find out who killed his mother, coming up against many barriers, including the police, who who were dealing with their own scandal in the lead up to his mother’s murder. Following his experience, Mr. Hamburg told the British newspaper The Observer that he believes his home state of Connecticut is “among the worst states in the country for transparency with law enforcement, and that’s been really frustrating.” Available to stream on HBOMax.
7. Between the World and Me
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book “Between the World and Me,” originally written as a letter to his teenage son, is brought to life by dozens of artists, actors, and activists in this moving HBO special. Both the book and this special, recount Coates’ childhood and adolescence in Baltimore and interrogate the role of schools, communities, police, and the system in upholding racial injustice and violence against Black communities. Available to stream on HBOMax.
8. 40 Years a Prisoner
Mike Africa, Jr., the central figure in “40 Years a Prisoner”, was born in prison after his mother Debbie Africa and eight other members of Move — a Black liberation group founded in the ‘70s — where imprisoned. The Move Nine, as the group came to be known, were arrested and convicted after a police shootout at their commune in West Philadelphia. The violence erupted after years of escalating tensions and police brutality that pushed the group to arm itself despite a commitment to peaceful principles. Available to stream on HBOMax.
While this year saw a lot of great new releases that touched on wrongful conviction and injustice, we also recommend these films and series that are too good to miss.
9. Frank Serpico
This captivating documentary tells the story of Frank Serpico, the Brooklyn-born police officer who blew the whistle on corruption in the NYPD in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Mr. Serpico was played by Al Pacino in the hit film “Serpico,” but in this documentary the man himself shares what it was like to go undercover and be called a “rat” by his peers for standing by the truth and upholding justice. Available to stream on Hulu and Amazon.
10. Who Killed Garrett Phillips?
This two-part documentary raises questions about the hasty pursuit of Oral “Nick” Hillary, a Jamaican man in the mostly white community of Potsdam, New York, after the death of 12-year-old Garrett Phillips. Chronicling Mr. Hillary’s interrogation, arrest, and trial — during which prosecutorial misconduct was uncovered — the documentary considers the influence of racial bias in the criminal legal system and among law enforcement. Available to stream on HBOMax.
The Innocence Project’s 11 Best Reads of 2020
11. Strong Island
In “Strong Island,” filmmaker Yance Ford investigates the death of his 24-year-old brother, a Black teacher in New York, at the hands of a white teenager, who an all-white grand jury declined to indict. This deeply personal documentary shows how such a grave injustice impacts a family long after their loved one is gone. Available to stream on Netflix here.
12. When They See Us
No Innocence Project viewing list would be complete without Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us.” This award-winning drama series tells the true story of wrongfully convicted teenage boys known as the Central Park Five. The series highlights the roles that racial bias and misconduct played in the cases of the five men known today as the Exonerated Five, following their exoneration in 2002. Available to stream on Netflix here.
13. Just Mercy
Based on Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson’s memoir of the same name, “Just Mercy” tells the story of Walter McMillian, a Black man wrongly convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a white woman. Though the film begins in 1989, many of the themes upon which it touches, including racial injustice, are still relevant in our clients’ cases today. Available to stream on Hulu, HBOMax, and Amazon.