Texas Living

7 Essential Texas Documentaries to Watch

By Peter Simek 8.30.19

Considering its epic landscapes, wild history, larger-than-life characters, and many quirks and ticks, it is no surprise that Texas has been the setting of more than a few incredible documentary films.

There’s no singular characteristic that defines a Texas documentary. Filmmakers have turned their lens on cultural oddities, political subjects, sports, crime, and music. Together, Texas documentaries have helped to shape and reinvent the genre, helping to push narrative nonfiction filmmaking into new frontiers.

There are honestly too many great Texas documentaries to choose from, but for now, here are seven absolute essentials.

Courtesy of Alamy

The Thin Blue Line (1988)

The style and tone of Errol Morris’ breakthrough film The Thin Blue Line may feel familiar to viewers given our Netflix-fed, true crime-saturated media diet, but it was the movie that revolutionized the genre when it was first released in 1988.

A handful of unreliable narrators spin a tale of a cop-killing on a quiet road in Dallas. The right man was locked up for the crime — or was he? The Thin Blue Line is prescient in the way it calls into question not only the way official narratives shape the parameters of power but also how the way we understand the past is blurred by our memories of experiencing it.

Beauty Knows No Pain (1972)

When photographer Elliott Erwitt traveled from New York to Kilgore in 1972, he might as well have been entering another universe. Kilgore, of course, is the birthplace of the Kilgore Rangerettes, the original majorette drill team that was founded in 1940. Erwitt followed the girls from tryouts to halftime, capturing plenty of towering hairdos, colorful costumes, and drilling, kicking, dancing, and pizzazz. Rarely has Texas’ local color been captured so vividly.

Hands on a Hard Body: The Documentary (1997)

The premise is so simple. Twenty-four contestants place their hands on a truck, and whoever can keep them there the longest wins the truck. But in S.R. Bindler’s film, which follows the competition over four grueling days, the game becomes a way to enter into the lives of the people taking part in the truck contest. Who would dig so deep for the chance to win a four-by-four and why? The deceivingly simple story has gone on to inspire a radio program, a movie, and a musical.

Into the Abyss (2011)

The crime was horrific: a 50-year-old nurse killed by a man who seemed only interested in taking her car for a joyride. After the murder, Michael Perry was convicted and sentenced to death row. That’s where legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog found Perry, and through interviews with the convict and people connected with the crime, he stitches a kind of psychological profile of trauma. Into the Abyss is not so much about a crime but rather about the implications of a murder and how a senseless killing has affected the perpetrators, the victims, and their families.

Be Here to Love Me (2004)

When Townes Van Zandt died in 1997, he was the greatest American songwriter no one ever had heard of. In 2004, Be Here to Love Me did much to revive Van Zandt’s image in the popular imagination — not that it was an entirely positive one. The undeniable genius lived a difficult life characterized by broken relationships, hard living, and self-destruction, like many of the heroes of his songs. But Be Here to Love Me also shows how beneath a broken kind of man was a genius unlike any other — and a Texan who gave the world some of the greatest folk songs ever written.

Tower (2016)

It was only 96 minutes in history, but the terrifying moments when Charles Whitman held the University of Texas at Austin campus hostage by raining down bullets from the school’s iconic tower changed Texas forever. The 2016 animated documentary recreates those harrowing moments with a sensitivity that honors those who suffered America’s first mass school shooting, while taking stock of the event’s implications on American life.

Pony Excess (2010)

One of the best installments of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series was a film about the infamous Southern Methodist University football scandal. In the early 1980s, the NCAA found that the school was paying athletes to play for its football team. The documentary walks us back through history to the story about how one of the greatest college football teams in America was brought to its knees. The fall from grace plays off the culture of greed and power that dominated Dallas in the early 1980s. SMU’s football program has never been able to recover from the so-called “death penalty” that was administered to the school as punishment for the scandal. But Pony Excess is about more than a school and football, and it reckons with the players’ true loss.

Find more Texas film history here.

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