Documentary film, as very much opposed to reality TV, continues to be one of the best things TV has to show you; indeed, it is for most people the only place to see this sort of work. PBS and HBO are the form's best friends; each has a worthwhile offering tonight.
Arriving under the umbrella of the PBS series "Independent Lens," Johanna Hamilton's invigorating "1971" looks at eight Philadelphia-area peace activists who in March 1971, in an act of "non-violent disruption," broke into an FBI branch office in Media, Pa., and walked away with every last file. What they found there revealed the workings of COINTELPRO, the agency's almost comically active program for spying on American citizens, most of them guilty of nothing more than holding opinions that J. Edgar Hoover considered un-American. (It's Snowden before Snowden.)
In her recounting, a strange and lively atmosphere of outrage, enthusiasm and paranoia, Hamilton has made of her tale a kind of real-life, old-fashioned analog caper film, with disguises and lock-picking, worked-out timetables and last-minute improvisation, certainties and second thoughts; there are more dramatic re-creations than this department usually prefers, but the subject matter does make them useful, and they have shot in a way that feels compatible to the era and action. FBI investigations followed, and investigations into the FBI. The burglars, never caught, all speak here.
Gillian Laub's "Southern Rites," on HBO, grew out of a photo essay she made in 2009 for the New York Times magazine on the segregated high school proms in Montgomery County, Ga.; chased off the next year when she returned to shoot the first integrated prom, "I stumbled on a more complicated story," though one still rooted in a world in which racism is understood as "just the Southern way." Laub looks at the shooting of a young black man, 22-year-old Justin Patterson, by a middle-aged white man, Norman Neesmith -- also the adoptive father of the biracial teenager, the daughter of his niece, whom Justin and his younger brother had come to visit. (It was a Facebook hookup, also involving another teenage girl, to put a new face on the Old South.)
Simultaneously, contrapuntally, the film follows the campaign of Calvin Burns, the country's first African American police chief, to become its first African American sheriff. The participants were willing to talk, and Laub lets them, without directing you what to think -- there is room here for many different, even contradictory thoughts. But that Laub allows for human messiness as an agent of this tragedy doesn't mean that she denies the social context. Her eye is keen; much drama proceeds from the light and landscape and the mortal faces of Laub's subjects working around to an idea.
Robert Lloyd is on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd