In June 2011 Texas Monthly assembled a group of film aficionados to come up with a list of the best films ever made in or about Texas. And while I love The Last Picture Show, Tender Mercies, and No Country for Old Men, it bothered me that in the ground rules, documentaries were explicitly ruled out.
Texas is extraordinarily rich territory for stories worth documenting, so in an effort to give some love to these types of films, I’ve come up with my own list of the ten best documentaries made in our state. Not all of them are about subjects unique to Texas, and I gave deference to films clearly rooted here, with some diversity in representation by genre, region, and the time the films were made. And being documentaries, they’re, of course, all true.
In chronological order, here’s my list.
The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1968)
A Well Spent Life (1971)
Chulas Fronteras (1976)
People talk about being moved by a film, but these three short films about Texas music may inspire you to actually get up and dance. The legendary documentarian Les Blank shot them forty years ago, preserving a piece of our state’s music history. His intimate portaits of bluesmen Lightin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb—as well as Tejano legend Lydia Mendoza and Flaco and Santiago Jimenez—capture the joy and spontaneity of making music.
The films are deceptively simple. People just talk about their lives and play music, a soundtrack laid over a view of rural life in East and South Texas in the sixties and seventies. Blank gives the viewer glimpses into the everyday lives of his characters, chronicling big events—river baptisms, wedding anniversaries, and local rodeos—and mundane activities like cooking BBQ or making tortillas and crude salsa (made by crushing peppers, tomatoes and onions together with the bottom of a beer bottle). Throw in scenes of killing snakes, pulling a rope tow auto barge across the Rio Grande by hand, cock fights, and picking grapefruit, and it’s clear Blank has documented a snapshot of rural Texas few outside of the ones living it will ever see.
Chulas Fronteras, which focuses on the Tejano music scene in South Texas, is part of the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, but all three films are national treasures, as are the musicians they profile. While watching A Well Spent Life, it’s easy to forget that Mance Lipscomb was not “discovered” until he was well into his sixties, and Lightin’ Hopkins, who recorded more blues albums than any other musician in his genre, is regularly listed among the best guitarists to ever live.
Beauty Knows No Pain (1972)
In 1971, Magnum photographer Elliott Erwitt traveled from New York down to Kilgore, Texas, to make a film about the tryouts for the famed Kilgore Rangerettes, the original majorette drill team that had, at that time, been doing halftime shows at football games for three decades.
The film’s tone is a bit over the top—it begins with the Battle Hymn of the Republic playing as the girls practice their drills in hair curlers—but Erwitt’s cinematic sense of symmetry is striking and a beautiful complement to his subject, as the girls stretch, drill, dance, and kick in a line.
Presiding over the tryouts is Miss Gussie Neil, the team’s founder and keeper of all Rangerette wisdom. Her commentary drives this short film, as do the barks and orders coming from this bee-hive-haired taskmaster who both praises and mercilessly critiques the wannabes (“get those wrinkles out of your leotards!”).
When the final choices are posted, the camera, strategically placed behind the bulletin board, zeroes in on the frenzied mob. Those picked scream for joy, while the rejected weep—one girl stands and stares, stunned and mute amidst the mayhem, before starting to walk away, then turning back, just in case she missed her number.
The chosen few join the perfectly-coiffed, perpetually-poised Rangerettes, dressed in the state colors—red blouses, short blue dresses, little white cowboy hats jauntily perched on the sides of their heads, and wide belts, all purposefully sized two inches smaller than their waists. It might hurt, but as Mrs. Neil reminds us, “beautiful girls never have any pain with anything that makes them beautiful.”
Marshall, Texas: Marshall, Texas (1983)
Few American journalists are as comfortable on screen as Bill Moyers. And it’s apparent he took great pleasure in taking the cameras with him to Marshall, his hometown in East Texas, a place, his father said, that has “more Baptists than people.
The lyrical way Moyers speaks, using a familiar and gentle accent, makes him the kind of person you’d want to have a long conversation with, and it’s clear that everyone in this film feels that way. Admittedly, this is an older style of documentary filmmaking, one where it was okay to just let folks talk. But it works because the interviewees are folksy and wise, and they have the same gift with words as Moyers.
They tell stories of moonshiners and civil war veterans; of the time when old and young could see eye-to-eye; and how the railroad tracks out of town pointed to the promise of a different, better life. Moyers also visits with the teachers who instilled a love of poetry in him, teachers who still remember him on his way to library, books under both arms. And the years drop from their faces as they laugh about Marshall’s movie theater, which offered either “shootin’ and killin’” films or “lovin’ and kissin’” ones, and where the sign outside simply read, “6 reels, 10 cents, nuff said.”
But Moyers takes care to not let his film become a nostalgic homage. He tells the story of a Marshall that had been two separate towns—one white, one black—just a few years before. The largest slave population in Texas left a legacy of small black colleges, whose students led the early civil rights protests in town. One of those former student smiles and recalls being hosed by fireman at a lunch counter protest, then coming back to campus and telling a friend “I’m wet but happy.”
The film won an Emmy and was the very first program in the award winning PBS series A Walk Through the 20th Century With Bill Moyers, a fitting choice for Moyers, being that this film was personal.
The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Texas is a magnet for filmmakers who want to tell stories about the state’s flawed criminal justice system. Revered documentarians Werner Herzog and Steve James tackled that very topic in their films Into the Abyss and At the Death House Door, respectively. But they all owe a debt to the father of this niche genre, Errol Morris. His seminal film The Thin Blue Line examines the Rashomon effect surrounding the case of the murder of Dallas policeman Robert Wood, in 1976. Morris picks apart the case and gives a voice to Randall Dale Harris, who maintains that he was wrongfully convicted of killing the peace officer.
Morris recounts multiple recreations of various versions of the murder to convey to the viewer just how complicated the case had become. He also leans heavily on Philip Glass’s original score to heighten the tension. These production techniques—along with stylized filmed images of road signs, burning cigarettes, guns, revolving police lights, and clips from B- movies—are used to great effect.
His careful storytelling plants the seed of reasonable doubt, implying that the Dallas police department and court system railroaded Harris, a 28-year-old drifter, when they couldn’t get a conviction against the probable killer, sixteen-year-old David Harris, a multiple offender who was eventually arrested for another murder. Morris also questions the criminal justice system’s propensity to rely heavily on eyewitness testimony, no matter how shaky. (There have since been numerous accounts of eyewitness testimony being used to secure convictions against men in Texas who were later discovered to be innocent.)
The Thin Blue Line had enormous impact. Not only did Morris invent a recreation style of crime coverage that’s become standard cable fare in subsequent years, more importantly, the film led to Adams’s conviction being overturned. This instantly catapulted Morris, already a well-regarded filmmaker, into popular consciousness, and cemented his film into the canon of greatest American documentaries.
Robert Caro has already written four tomes on Lyndon Baines Johnson (and is still writing), so it stands to reason that our 36th president deserved an equally large film canvas. He gets it in David Grubin’s four-hour tale of triumph and ultimate tragedy. The haunting opening shots of LBJ dancing with Lady Bird at the inaugural ball following his 1964 landslide victory for president sets the tone for a story about the man whose presence, one friend described, was like being “with a great hurtling locomotive running down the track.”
LBJ endured a tumultuous presidency, full of civic highs—the passage of the historic civil rights bills and the formation of “the Great Society”—and calamitous lows, like the Vietnam War. As narrator David McCullough says at the beginning of the film, “Few presidents would ever know more triumph. Few suffer such a swift and tragic fall.”
It’s true that Grubin is more interested in Johnson’s White House years, skipping much of the Texas side of the history that made Caro’s first volume, The Path to Power, such a classic. But terrific storytellers like Governor John Connally, longtime Congressman Jake Pickle, and Texas Observer founder Ronnie Dugger, give the film a strong Texas flavor. (Also the premonition delivered in Galveston by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who sizes up LBJ, then a young Congressman-elect, and tells a friend that “this young man” could become president someday.)
Recently a spate of documentaries about Texas politicos have been released (Ann Richards, Karl Rove, and Tom DeLay, are a few of the subjects) but, much like the man it’s about, this film towers above all of them. At the film’s conclusion, Dugger explains why LBJ’s story is so captivating: “[he] was kind, he was cruel, he could be a son of a bitch, yet he could be decent and generous, you know, everything, because he had it all. …[H]e was just interesting as hell.”
Hands on a Hardbody (1997)
It may be difficult to imagine that filming a bunch of folks trying to win a truck by keeping their hand on it longest would provide much conflict, let alone narrative arc and character development. But filmmaker S.R. Bindler managed to tease out a captivating movie by filming a contest so odd it could only be found in East Texas.
He got the idea to make Hardbody in 1994 after he walked out of a bar in his hometown of Longview, Texas, and literally walked into a group of people gathered around a new Nissan truck, each touching the body of a vehicle they hoped to win. Bindler was mesmerized.
A year later he returned and filmed a group of 23 contestants, young and old, men and women, black, white and brown, are folks who need that truck—to pay off bills, to replace the truck they had to sell, to quit their waitress job, to fulfill a higher calling, or just to test themselves. To win, they must keep one gloved hand on the truck at all times, no leaning, no squatting. Break contact—save for the five-minute break every hour, and fifteen-minute break every six hours—and you’re gone.
“It’s a contest, they say, of stamina. But it’s who can maintain their sanity for the longest, cause when you go insane, you lose,”says Benny Perkins, a past champ and this film’s philosopher and star.
Before his death, director Robert Altman was working on a Hardbody narrative script. Now the story is coming to New York as a Broadway musical. Strange as it may sound, it’s truly a universal story with broad appeal. Or as Benny says, it’s more than a contest; “It’s a human drama thing.”
The Education of Shelby Knox (2005)
Lubbock is a small city known for its piety, so when high schooler Shelby Knox decided stand up for sex education reform in her school district, it raised a few eyebrows in the community.
When the precocious teenager learned that Texas has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease rates in the country, she started a campaign for comprehensive sex education in Lubbock’s public schools. As an enthusiastic Southern Baptist raised by Republican parents, she’s an unlikely champion for such a cause. But it’s inspiring to watch this young woman passionately argue for reform that seems unlikely to happen.
One of the strengths of the film is its many fly-on-the-wall filmed conversations. There’s Shelby and her pastor in their ongoing disagreements on religion (“You’re a pretty liberal Christian, and that makes a lot of people nervous!”). There are also the talks with her wonderfully supportive, if perplexed parents—at one point her mom says “it’s hard to understand how you got so liberal . . . I’m sure there are Democrats here, I just don’t know any”. And then there’s the earnest, yet slightly hard-to-watch conversation Shelby has when she resigns from the youth commission after the organization doesn’t use its teeth to push for the mission she believes in.
In the film, it becomes clear that Shelby may not get her way in this place with so many contradictions. Besides, the film points out, it’s not as if abstinence education is having a big impact on actual behavior. Case in point: during the filming, the school superintendent, who’s adamantly opposed to comprehensive sex education, was caught having extramarital sex and forced to resign (as one of his emails to the object of his advances reads, ‘you’d have to get totally naked”).
However it’s Shelby’s transformation into an independent thinker that makes this film a treat.
Be Here to Love Me (2005)
In 2005, a trio of documentaries about Texas musicians graced the SXSW film fest. The Devil and Daniel Johnston about the singer of the same name and You’re Gonna Miss Me, about the 13 Elevators frontman Roky Erickson, were both great films. But Margaret Brown’s lyrical study of Texas legend Townes Van Zandt is not only the one with the most staying power, but one of the best films at revealing the inner soul of a songwriter.
Van Zandt was a songwriter’s songwriter, and a cast of Texas Hall of Famers and their friends—Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle, and more—testify about Townes’s talent. Brown also dips into a treasure chest of archival material, charting the singer’s life from a charismatic, handsome and drunken young man singing a melody of his hit ”Pancho and Lefty” to the haggard shadow he became after abusing himself, a man that was tended to by his three wives, all articulate and wistful on film.
Part of what also sets this film apart is the beautiful and inventive imagery, much of it owed to Lee Daniel, who was Richard Linklater’s original cinematographer (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise). Daniel and Brown tread through the kinds of metaphorical sequences that, in the hands of lesser filmmakers, would look like low-grade cable programming. Here, it’s like a pathway straight into this tortured soul. And she perfectly concludes the film with Lyle Lovett’s rendition of Townes’ “Flyin’ Shoes” (sung while Townes’ sons describe his last night), and Guy Clark’s delivery of a simple, one-sentence eulogy,
(In full disclosure, I met Margaret Brown when she was first thinking about making this film, and I was one of many people in Austin, inspired by her passion for Townes and his music, to help her.)
Oswald’s Ghost (2007)
In many ways, the national image of Dallas is the image of Texas—home to big hair, J.R. Ewing, and America’s team. But for a different generation, Dallas was “the city of hate,” the place where John F. Kennedy was killed in November 1963. The subject of JFK’s assassination has inspired dozens of movies (including the infamous Oliver Stone film), spawned more than two thousand books, and is an endless well for conspiracy theorists.
In Oswald’s Ghost, Robert Stone, the maker of several archival-film-driven docs, unifies all the theories in an attempt to discover more about the enigmatic character at the center of this story: Lee Harvey Oswald. Why, Stone wonders, would Oswald want to kill the President? And furthermore how could someone so inconsequential have done this? Historian Robert Dallek zeroes in on the latter question, using it to explain why the conspiracy theories persist: “People are comforted with the idea that human affairs are not the product of random events; there’s some larger force here.”
Stone’s major coup d’état is landing an interview with the late Norman Mailer, who manages to be a runaway star in every documentary he ever appears in (check out his fight analysis in the fabulous Mohammed Ali in Zaire film, When We Were Kings). Here, building on his own book about the Kennedy assassination, Mailer covers all the familiar angles in this contested history—outlining the theories involving the Soviets, the Cubans, the CIA, the FBI, Jack Ruby—but he manages to tread the tired narrative in a fresh new way.
In the end Stone brilliantly weaves Mozart’s Requiem with both archival film of Kennedy’s visit to Dallas that fateful day and Mailer’s conclusion that while there may have been conspiracies contemplated on that very day, Oswald acted on his own because “he had the motive for doing it, because he was capable of doing it, because he wanted to do it.”
Pony Excess (2010)
You’d think that there would be a shelf full of great Texas documentaries about football. Maybe it’s too much of a cliché, a seeming viper’s nest for the unprepared documentarian, but aside from the high school football-memory sequence in Don Howard’s Letter from Waco, the subject was left virtually untouched until ESPN’s fine 30-By-30 documentary series covered the SMU football scandal of the seventies.
During the sixties, SMU’s football program, which, just a generation earlier, produced great players like Doak Walker and Don Meredith, had fallen into mediocrity. But by the end of the next decade, they were considered the best team in college football, with the “Pony Express” running tandem of Eric Dickerson and Craig James. Unfortunately SMU’s program also became known as the best college football team that money could buy. (The joke was that Dickerson took a pay cut when he went to the NFL.) The football-crazed SMU boosters only wanted the best, and they weren’t shy about how to get it. “Shoeboxes of cash. Cars, apartments, designer outfits, girls, gambling, Trans Ams, even a new house for Mom.”
There’s some memorable football action weaved into the film, much of it watching Dickenson and James run around and through their opponents, but the good times ended when the chairman of the SMU Board and Texas Governor Bill Clements were revealed to have known about the regular payments to SMU players. Seems they’d stopped paying new recruits, but there was still a payroll to meet for players still on the team. The NCAA invoked the dreaded and never-before-used “death penalty” on SMU (with a Dallas sports reporter saying “well, in Texas, we do execute you”), effectively banning football for two years, with two decades of horrendous teams following.
BONUS PICK: Spellbound (2002)
Only the first ten minutes of this film, about the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, in Washington, take place in Texas, but it’s captivating to watch eighth-grader Angela Arenivar, of Perryton, in her Amarillo regional competition, go up to the fifty-fourth round, with just the spelling of “crocodilian” between her and a trip to the nationals.
Angela’s the gangly, ever-grinning daughter of Mexican laborers who paid a coyote $500 to spirit them across the border many years before. Her father still doesn’t speak English, though his son points out that “the cows don’t speak English either.”
Richly deserving its Academy Award nomination, Spellbound, which premiered at South by Southwest, introduces us to a cast of kids—diverse in class, race, and region—that are unscripted and quirky. The portraits of these children are vastly more interesting that the contest they’re competing in, and their stories are a testament to the “American dream,” of having a shot at any goal you may want—even if you sadly fall short of achieving it.
Angela and her older brother went on to attend Texas A&M as ROTC students.
Over the Hills and Far Away
An Austin couple with an autistic child travels to Mongolia for a cure.
For All Mankind
An Academy Award-winning film about the adventures of going to the moon.
Better This World
A couple of young Lubbock political activists get caught in an FBI sting.
Amarillo, Texas revealed.
About George W. Bush’s adopted hometown.
Single motherhood, then and now.
As I Rise
About a UT student opera singer not allowed to sing because of her race.
Taking a year to examine life at the school for the blind.*
Troop 1500 and Writ Writer
Films about our prison system.
The Two Towns of Jasper, The Longoria Affair, and Tulia, Texas
Three films about racial discrimination in Texas.
Los Trabajadores/The Workers
Following Mexican day laborers.
A dance piece featuring Austin sanitation workers.
Becoming part of the most celebrated high school mariachi band program in Texas.
Inside the Circle
A look inside the state’s hip-hop culture.
Remember the Alamo
The Tejano’s POV on the state’s most famous battle.
Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena
The battle over teaching evolution in public schools (he battle over teaching evolution in public schools.
Unpacking the complicated case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of killing his children, but is widely believed to be innocent.
People Like Us
Social class played out at Austin’s Anderson High School.
The travails of a girl who wants to be on her high school wrestling team.
A paraplegic trains to be part of a rugby team for quadraplegics.
Along Came Kinky
On Kinky Friedman’s run for governor.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
the rise and fall of Enron
A Houston high school band that soared, then and now.
And a career of films by Hector Galan, especially his landmark Chicano! series.
Filmmaker Paul Stekler teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, and has created several Texas-related films, including one about politics (Last Man Standing: Politics, Texas Style); Luling’s watermelon seed-spitting contest (Spit Farther!); and the state Lege (with Senator Rodney Ellis gathering votes in Vote for Me: Politics in America). His newest film, Getting Back to Abnormal, will be showing at SXSW.