12 Best Instructive Movies On Hulu

Staff & contributors

One of cinema’s greatest powers is to educate. If you want to plunge into the center of lives, industries and systems you might otherwise never know about, here are the top instructive movies and shows to stream now.

Co-directed and narrated by legendary German director Wim Wenders in collaboration with Salgado's son, Juliano, this unique film tells Sebastião Salgado's life story from his childhood in Northern Brazil, his early career as an economist, and how he shifted towards photography to become a world-renowned photojournalist. Shot in stunning black and white by Juliano Salgado and Hugo Barbier, The Salt of the Earth is a mesmerizing exhibition of one man's lifelong dedication to capture the suffering of humanity and of nature. Most famously, the nightmarish images of the teeming workers of Serra Pelada, a Brazilian mountain gold mine. While creating these images raises some ethical questions that Salgado was confronted with throughout his career, it is an utterly enthralling experience, upsetting at times in its frank display of war, death, and devastation. Ultimately, however, Salgado's elegance and kindness pull us back in and what we see is truth, awareness, and beauty.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Lélia Wanick Salgado, Régis Muller, Sebastião Salgado, Wim Wenders

Director: Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Wim Wenders

Rating: PG-13

In a stunning and vivid (re-) introduction to the Black intellectual, author, and social critic, James Baldwin, this movie digs very deep into the American subconscious and racial history. It tells the story of America by telling the story of “the negro” in America, based on a book Baldwin started to write, which would have studied the famous assassinations of three of Baldwin's friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He wrote about 30 pages before he passed away in 1987. Haitian director and activist Raoul Peck picked up the project and made it into a movie, earning him an Academy Award nomination. Narrated by none other than Samuel L. Jackson, I Am Not Your Negro highlights, at the same time, Baldwin's genius, his unique eloquence, and the beauty of his soul as a human being. It is a sad truth that Baldwin's denouncements feel as relevant today as they did 50 years ago. As such, this movie serves as a sobering reminder of how far America still has to go. A mesmerizing experience!

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Bob Dylan, Dick Cavett, H. Rap Brown, Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin, Joey Starr, Malcolm X, Marlon Brando, Martin Luther King, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Paul Weiss, Ray Charles, Robert F. Kennedy, Samuel L. Jackson, Sidney Poitier

Director: Raoul Peck

Rating: PG-13

Summer of Soul would already be remarkable if it was just a collection of some of the greatest live performances ever put to film. Boasting a roster that includes Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight, and Sly and the Family Stone, the nearly-forgotten 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival featured in the documentary was an all-star catalog of some of the biggest names in popular music, all at pivotal moments in their careers. Seeing them at the height of their powers, in front of a Black audience that meant so much to them, makes for an unexpectedly emotional experience.

But Summer of Soul also expands beyond the actual concert, using the Harlem Cultural Festival to represent a turning point in Black culture and history, especially after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Through the film's pristine, electric editing and gorgeous archival restoration, music becomes a communal act of mourning, a rallying cry to face the uncertain future, and a celebration of a people and a heritage continuing to fight against erasure and persecution.

Genre: Documentary, Drama, History, Music

Actor: Abbey Lincoln, B. B. King, Chris Rock, David Ruffin, Fidel Castro, Herbie Mann, Hugh Masekela, Jesse Jackson, John F. Kennedy, John V. Lindsay, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mahalia Jackson, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Mavis Staples, Max Roach, Moms Mabley, Nina Simone, Questlove, Redd Foxx, Richard Nixon, Robert F. Kennedy, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Tony Lawrence, Walter Cronkite

Director: Questlove

Using the documentary form with supreme clarity and righteous fury, Lakota Nation vs. United States distills hundreds of years of American history into two powerful, consistently engaging hours of film. The information presented in this movie has always been available to the public, but directors Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli do an excellent job at allowing these historical accounts and more recent headlines to cumulatively take on a truly emotional—almost spiritual—resonance. The enormity of the losses that Native Americans have endured physically, culturally, and economically is genuinely horrifying, and every new obstacle that the Oceti Sakowin peoples face feels heavy with the struggle of all of their ancestors before them.

Short Bull and Tomaselli stick to a generally conventional structure, but are able to weave together together personal stories and factual legal arguments through archival footage, majestic shots of the frontier, and the poetry of Lakota poet Layli Long Soldier. The whole film, then, begins to take on more of a lyrical quality—as if every tragic moment has permanently become part of the tapestry of Native life, impossible to forget and always driving efforts for reparation forward. Still the Native struggle continues, but with much more hope than despair.

Genre: Documentary, History

Actor: Candi Brings Plenty, Krystal Two Bulls, Layli Long Soldier, Nick Tilsen, Phyllis Young

Director: Jesse Short Bull, Laura Tomaselli

Keira Knightley stars in this incredible true story of an Iraq War whistleblower who remains relatively little-known in the U.S. Katharine Gun was working for the communications office for the British government when she received a memo in the months leading to the war that showed that the U.S. requested illegal wiretapping assistance from the U.K. on U.N. diplomats. In a heroic act, she chooses to share this memo, hoping that it would stop her government (then led by Tony Blair) from going to war. Spoiler alert: didn't happen, but this decision, which first seemed like a personal sacrifice, has severe implications on her family as the government finds out that she was behind the leak. A compelling political mystery of a case that deserves much more attention than it once got.

Genre: Drama, History, Thriller

Actor: Adam Bakri, Andrew Marr, Angus Wright, Brett Allen, Chris Larkin, Chris Reilly, Clive Francis, Conleth Hill, David Maybrick, Fiona Skinner, Gabrielle Downey, George W. Bush, Hanako Footman, Hattie Morahan, Indira Varma, Jack Farthing, Janie Dee, Jeremy Northam, Jessica Fostekew, Jodie McNee, John Heffernan, Katherine Kelly, Keira Knightley, Kenneth Cranham, Lindy Whiteford, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, Michael James, Monica Dolan, MyAnna Buring, Niccy Lin, Peter Guinness, Raad Rawi, Ralph Fiennes, Raquel Cassidy, Ray Panthaki, Rhys Ifans, Shaun Dooley, Sophie Duval, Tamsin Greig, Tony Blair, Vinta Morgan, Will Barton

Director: Gavin Hood

Rating: R

The question mark in the title represents the central idea of this fascinating documentary: what if worshipping Satan is the only way of ensuring religious freedom for everyone?

That's what a group of young members known as The Satanic Temple believe, led by a determined and well-spoken Harvard graduate. They embark on a journey across the U.S. to challenge corrupt officials and the prevalence of religious biases in government agencies. They always request that their belief system (Satanism) is given the same favorable treatment as Christianity, effectively proving that authorities will really only accept a show of religion if it's one religion: Christianity.

But their intoxicating energy comes with costs: divisions within the organization and growing pains. This documentary perfectly illustrates not only a misunderstood religion (in the documentary it's referred to as "post-religion") but the difficulties of establishing grassroots movements in general.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Anton LaVey, Bill O'Reilly, Billy Graham, Cecil B. DeMille, Chalice Blythe, Charlton Heston, Chris Hayes, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Geraldo Rivera, Greta Van Susteren, Jex Blackmore, Lucien Greaves, Malcolm Jarry, Mamie Eisenhower, Megyn Kelly, Mike Pence, Nicholas Crowe, Penny Lane, Rick Scott, Sal De Ciccio

Director: Penny Lane

Rating: R

It may not teach us anything that we don't already know by now, but the documentary Totally Under Control—filmed in secret, in defiance of the Trump administration—still stands as a valuable historical document so that the same mistakes can be avoided in the future. Boiled down to simple terms by doctors and other experts, the film's explanation of the United States' failure to adequately contain their own COVID-19 outbreak is always science- and fact-oriented first. And in its own classy, level-headed way, the film emphasizes that every politician, celebrity, and media outlet has a crucial part to play in making sure nobody panics and chases any counterproductive agendas. It should be obvious by now that we're all on the same team.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Alex Gibney, Andrew Cuomo, Anthony Fauci, Barack Obama, Deborah Birx, Donald Trump, Joe Kennedy III, John R. Bolton, Michael Bowen, Mike Pence, Narendra Modi, Scott Becker, Taison Bell

Director: Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, Suzanne Hillinger

Like many American narratives, the history of space exploration is rife with long-buried secrets that are finally coming to the surface. The Space Race is an attempt to collect those secrets and weave a fresh new history that finally celebrates the heroes we should’ve learned about years ago. There are interviews with the likes of space pioneer Ed Dwight (who is responsible for unforgettable lines like “I’m not part of history, but a mystery” and “I had the capability, but not the opportunity) and the first Black man to fly into space, Guion Bluford, as well as surprising information about confidential test pilots, political involvement, and the undeniable influence of Afrofuturistic art and media in the field. But education aside, what gives the documentary an edge is that it’s not afraid to question and at times attack NASA and the government for their racist past. We see celebrated astronaut Victor Glover reconcile his loyalty to his nation with his anger over the murder of George Floyd, for instance. At the same time, others like Dwight wanted to “just talk about space, not the struggle” but were tokenized both by the government and the opposition for their gains. Despite its compact run time, The Space Race covers all these nuances and more to provide a richly detailed and lovingly told new history of space exploration in America.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Charles Bolden, Ed Dwight Jr., Guion Bluford

Director: Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, Lisa Cortés

Rating: PG-13

, 2020

Frank Zappa's creative scope could barely be defined -  a mix of rock, composition, design, and in his early days even filmmaking.  This documentary does its best to summarize the un-summarizable, starting with Zappa's last time playing guitar and going back to early details like an infatuation with explosives as a kid. 

Zappa's overwhelmingly full life is focused on the documentary in the study of his incredible work ethic and unique creative philosophy. Far from the drugged hippie perception he was often met with, Zappa was hard-working, business-aware, and didn't take drugs.

The manifestations of his exceptional intellect and unique character are abundant in a film that will please his fans and send anyone new to him into a deep Wikipedia rabbit hole.

Genre: Documentary, Music

Actor: Adam Curry, Adrian Belew, Ahmet Zappa, Al Gore, Alice Cooper, Arsenio Hall, Arthur Barrow, Aynsley Dunbar, Bill Wyman, Brian Jones, Bruce Bickford, Bruce Fowler, Bunk Gardner, Charles Manson, Chester Thompson, David Bowie, David Dondorf, David Harrington, David Letterman, David Raksin, Diva Zappa, Don Van Vliet, Dweezil Zappa, Edgard Varèse, Euclid James 'Motorhead' Sherwood, Frank Zappa, Gail Zappa, George Duke, Howard Kaylan, Ian Underwood, Jean-Luc Ponty, Jerry D. Good, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Carl Black, Joe Travers, John Belushi, John Lennon, Kathleen Sullivan, Kent Nagano, Lonnie Lardner, Mark Volman, Mick Jagger, Mike Keneally, Miss Mercy, Moon Unit Zappa, Nancy Davis Reagan, Nancy Reagan, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Pamela Des Barres, Patrice Zappa, Patrick O'Hearn, Peter Wolf, Pierre Boulez, Ralph Humphrey, Ray White, Ringo Starr, Ronald Reagan, Rose Zappa, Ruth Underwood, Scott Thunes, Steve Vai, Ted Koppel, Terry Bozzio, Tipper Gore, Tom Fowler, Tommy Mars, Václav Havel, Vinnie Colaiuta, Yoko Ono

Director: Alex Winter

Rating: Not Rated

With nearly a century to cover, If These Walls Could Sing had the daunting task of giving justice to the history of the iconic Abbey Roads Studios. In 89 minutes, Mary McCartney outlines the studio’s history through archival footage and a stacked selection of artist interviews, popping only in random moments to organize the timeline. With the wide selection of artists, the film can feel scattered, as it jumps from classical music, to rock and roll, and to film scoring. The documentary doesn’t really go in-depth into how the studio developed its sound, but there are some interesting insights into certain tracks, like how the studio approached contracts, experimentation, different genres, and technology. While the film relies too much on nostalgia, it’s still an interesting tour based on the subject matter alone.

Genre: Documentary, Music

Actor: Brian Epstein, Cilla Black, Cliff Richard, David Gilmour, Elton John, George Harrison, George Lucas, George Martin, Giles Martin, Jimmy Page, John Legend, John Lennon, John Williams, Kanye West, Kate Bush, Liam Gallagher, Linda McCartney, Mary McCartney, Nile Rodgers, Noel Gallagher, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Roger Waters

Director: Mary McCartney

You can see what director J.J. Anderson is trying to do with Sacred Soil: chronicle the lives of current Piney Woods students and connect them with their school’s storied past. It’s an admirable task that speaks to how, despite all the innovations we’ve made since the school’s founding in 1909, we still have a ways to go to achieve true racial equality. And it’s a story worth telling, set in a school brimming with bright minds unafraid to engage in important discourse. However, these ideas are muddled in Anderson’s unfocused storytelling. There is no narrator, so we’re left listening to clips of conversations and meetings that go on for too long (it often feels like sitting in a forum we’re not invited to). There are inserts of archival photos and beautiful shots of the school, but there’s little context provided to them, so those of us outside of the Piney Woods ecosystem are left feeling confused. Is the documentary about Black teenhood or is it about the history of the school? I imagine there’s a smoother way to interweave the two, but Sacred Soil ultimately fails to bridge the gap between the then and now.

Genre: Documentary

Director: J.J. Anderson

Rating: PG

The main subject that Hold Your Fire promises to be about—negotiation tactics first used in resolving a New York City standoff at a sporting goods store—is ultimately its most least interesting aspect. These supposed tactics aren't too well, and they end up putting a damper on all the human drama that comes before it, which proves strikingly three-dimensional. As the film revisits the details of the hostage situation from the perspective of those who were actually there, it also complicates the situation by compelling us to think of it in a dense, sociopolitical sense rather than a reductive lens of crime and punishment. It's this build-up to the actual negotiation that may actually hold more insight into these kinds of crises.

Genre: Documentary

Director: Stefan Forbes