What To Watch: True Crime
True crime is one of my favorite genres despite how tragic and upsetting it can be. I’m not sure why, but I really gravitate towards true crime stories. I like to read about it and listen to podcasts, but there’s something about a documentary that really brings the story to life. Maybe it’s the visual element - interviews with friends and family of the victim, crime scene photos, etc. It’s hard to look away from a well-produced true crime documentary.
Here are some of my favorite true crime picks on Netflix. I will keep my summaries to a minimum to avoid spoilers!
The Witness (2015)
This is one of the most captivating and moving crime documentaries I have ever seen. It is centered around the firsthand account of Bill Genovese, brother of famous stabbing victim Kitty Genovese, trying to get to get closer to his sister by getting to the bottom of her death. If you’ve ever heard of Bystander Syndrome, then it’s possible you have heard of this case. It’s the concept that onlookers are more likely to intervene in a bad situation if there are few or no other witnesses and/or that people often wait to see how others will react to something before acting themselves. Throughout the documentary, Bill Genovese learns about his sister’s life and all the things he didn’t know about her while she was live. It’s a truly heartbreaking story told incredibly well.
[You can read more about this documentary and Genovese’s murderer on my former true crime blog! It was a college project.]
The Keepers (2017)
This docuseries explores the tragic murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a teacher at Baltimore's Archbishop Keough High School, who was found dead in 1969. What I love about this series is that it’s mainly driven by a few former students who are determined to find the truth. Decades later, they are still convinced of a cover-up and want justice for their beloved teacher. The storytelling hops between 1969, the 1990s and present day, with many interviews from people who were there from the beginning. I had never heard of this case before and the series made me extremely emotional.
Amanda Knox (2016)
I was fascinated by this documentary because I had very minimal knowledge of the story before watching it. When Amanda Knox’s roommate, Meredith Kercher, was murdered in Italy in 2007, I was just a little too young to understand what was happening or pick up on the story. I feel this documentary did a good job of making the victim of the crime a visible character in the story, because victims are often forgotten and rarely named in these documentaries. Often, the main focus in on the perpetrator or accused and their life instead of the life that was taken. I didn’t have an opinion on whether or not Knox did it before watching the doc, but my takeaway at the end was that she is innocent and the Italian police did some truly horrific things to coerce her. The media also put her on trial in a disgusting way, which was tragic.
Evil Genius (2018)
This is the most recent docuseries I watched on Netflix. I had never heard of the story before, but I was enthralled by just how twisted it was. I also thought this was a fun fact: it’s a case that inspired most of the “bank heist with a bomb” episodes of procedurals and true crime tv shows. In just four episodes, the filmmaker goes through the wild story of how a pizza delivery man ended up attempting to rob a bank with a bomb strapped to his body. This story took place in 2003, so there are a lot of photos, video and interviews to illustrate it. Without giving too much away, this series will take you on a ride.
Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003)
I find Aileen Wuornos fascinating because she is one of just a few famous female serial killers. The documentary reveals a lot about the rough childhood and early life of Wuornos and shows a good example of how all the wrong circumstances can set someone down a dark path. There is a good amount of footage of Wuornos, who is a very intriguing and disturbing individual. The doc is a follow-up to a 1993 documentary, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, made by the same filmmaker.
And as a bonus, I have two recommendations of scripted series based on two major cases:
Manhunt: Unabomber (2017)
This miniseries is a fantastic telling of the story of the Unabomber. It focuses on the criminalist solving the case, but there is also a lot of background on Ted Kaczynski. The show has all the trademarks of a dark, dramatic miniseries: a neutral color palette, dramatic and almost too-perfect voice overs, jumping back and forth between two stories years apart, all that jazz. The cast is great, especially Paul Bettany as Ted Kaczynski. Bettany especially shines in episode 6, where he makes you feel sympathy and sadness for Ted. It is very emotional and really appeals to the viewer's sense of humanity. You spend an hour wanting Ted to get a second chance to live a better life. I’m not sure how much of the backstory in that episode was embellished, but it was very well-written.
This was another one of those stories I knew very little about, and I enjoyed the show a lot. I like how the show used real news clips and Jim Fitzgerald, the main agent portrayed on the show, did tell Bustle that it was about 80% accurate. However, I do want to watch an actual documentary or read a book about it.
The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (2016)
The cast is flawless (Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown, anyone?), the series is based on books of people who were there for the trial from start to finish and the attention to detail is incredible. I was addicted to this show while it was on TV. I was not alive when Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman were murdered, so this case was never on my radar much before the show. I knew about it and knew enough to know O.J. has to be guilty, but I didn’t know anything about the racial climate in Los Angeles during the trial and the vilification of Marcia Clark.
It had great ratings, critical acclaim and many award nominations, including Emmys for Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown and a Golden Globe for Best Limited Series or Television Film. The feelings from real people involved are mixed, mostly due to a lack of focus on the victims and a general displeasure from LAPD detective on the case, Mark Fuhrman. In my opinion, this show is a must-see.
Next on my list are “Wild, Wild Country” and “The Staircase”! What are your favorite true crime docs/docuseries, either on Netflix or elsewhere?