The Best Documentaries Currently Streaming on NetflixReading Time: 9 minutes
Be moved, get educated, get angry—or just get high and watch some cool animals.
Documentaries have had a moment over the past few years, and it’s not surprising: In a world in which ‘facts’ are as malleable as an editable Facebook post, docs offer a bit more stability. That’s not to say that everything committed to film represents absolute honesty, but when telling a story requires a team of filmmakers and a budget, there’s at least the reassurance that the lies are as hard-won as the truth.
Whether you want to be moved, get educated, get angry, or just get high and watch some cool nature scenes, these are the best documentaries currently streaming on Netflix.
Director Liz Garbus (Ghosts of Abu Ghraib) captures something of the danger and electricity of Simone’s art and activism at their height. One of the century’s greatest entertainers was also a force of nature as a personality; in an America that continues to disrespect Black power, the image of an unconquerable Black woman is joyful—even if the cost to her was real. Simone was near the very center of the culture and revolution during the 1960s, and this documentary speaks to her power and importance.
In 1992, three friends in Singapore (Sandi Tan, Jasmine Ng, and Sophia Siddique) made a film called Shirkers, with the help of a film teacher. The teacher then absconded with the finished product and vanished, never to be heard from again, at least by the filmmakers. Following the man’s death, the film was returned to Sandi Tan, who used it to create this fascinating documentary about the peril and promise of revisiting a lost past.
The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted in 1865, abolished slavery in the United States, but also left an enormous loophole that, director Ava DuVernay very convincingly argues, America has been happy to exploit. Though the amendment ended involuntary servitude, it made an exception in the case of punishment for conviction of a crime. One only needs to look at our current prison industrial complex, and the absurdly disproportionate rates of imprisonment for Black Americans, to see where she’s going. But 13th looks at an entire history of convict forced labor that begins with the disenfranchisement of Black voters in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and continues right to the present.
The first film acquired by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground Productions, and their first film to win an Oscar (for Best Documentary), American Factory plays to the best aspects of the Obama brand—and I mean that in the best possible way. The film looks at an abandoned GM plant in Ohio purchased by a Chinese billionaire for his company, glass manufacturer Fuyao. The plant came to employ 2,000 American workers, but the complicated dynamic between the Chinese leadership and working-class American employers quickly points to potentially insurmountable problems. The movie smartly takes a fly-on-the-wall approach, without any narrative beyond what we’re seeing and hearing inside the factory itself; there’s a warning here about a globalizing culture that’s changing the way we work (whether we like it or not), but there’s no overriding sense that there are heroes or villains here—just a lot of people trying to figure it all out.
Another Higher Ground Production, and another Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature (the film lost to My Octopus Teacher, to which we’ll return). Crip Camp does a brilliant job of establishing the day-to-day challenges faced by many disabled people. The movie begins at a Catskill summer camp in 1971, exploring the title’s Camp Jened as a place where people could be free to be themselves and have fun without being judged. Crip Camp then looks beyond those summer days to the five former campers who took their experiences as the basis for a lifetime of activism. The word ‘inspiring’ is easy to throw around, particularly when dealing with narratives about disabled people—but here, it fits.
Filmmaker and naturalist Craig Foster spent a year forming a relationship with a wild common octopus—a creature that, we’re discovering, can be shockingly intelligent in recognizable ways, and utterly alien in many others. Still, Foster and the octopus become something like good friends, hanging out and playing with each other while he’s allowed deeper access into her underwater world. The dangers of that world, and the naturally short lifespan of the species, offer up genuinely moving lessons about the deep fragility of life as well as the joy and value of connection. If you need something lighter when it’s done, the Documentary Now episode ‘My Monkey Grifter’ is a pretty hilarious counterpoint.
Going down a dark road, Our Father explores the life of (among others) Jacoba Ballard, one of the 94 (or more) biological offspring of church elder and fertility doctor Donald Cline, who impregnated dozens of his patients with his own sperm—with neither their consent nor knowledge. The film takes a sensationalistic approach to the undoubtedly lurid story and, honestly, there are probably better and more sensitive ways to tell this story. Our Father frequently centers the victims, both parents and children, but also hits every lurid beat over the head. That being said, the story told here is as fascinating as it is horrific.
Though rather overshadowed by his son, Robert Downey Sr. was one of the key counterculture figures of the 1960s and ’70s, creating brilliant, no-budget (but generally pretty successful) satires of American culture and capitalism. This documentary about his life, from director Chris Smith (American Movie), doesn’t quite give him his due as a filmmaker, but instead splits its focus between his career and his relationship with his son, told from Jr.’s perspective. If it’s not quite as gonzo as a straight-up portrait of Sr. probably ought to be, but what’s here is still a smart, tender look at an artist and father.
Director and actor Adam Nimoy takes a look at the life of his famous father, telling the story as only he could. This isn’t the idealized Spock actor, but a real, flesh-and-blood human being with passions beyond television, and with a complicated relationship with his family, as well as with his own fame. I’m not sure that there’s a better exploration of Nimoy, nor of the pop culture significance of his indelible Spock.
There are plenty of great documentaries about old Hollywood figures out there, many of them fascinating—but few (if any) can compare with the remarkable story of Hedy Lamar, once remembered as a talented glamour girl who had quite a bit more going on. Escaping from Austria and a controlling, Nazi-aligned husband in the early 1930s, Hedy came to Hollywood without ever losing her interest in invention. With no formal education, and through successful films and scandals, she tinkered with ahead-of-its time technology that could have brought World War II to a quicker end, if anyone had realized the nature of her patents at the time.
A document of Beyoncé’s performance at the 2018 Coachella Music and Arts Festival, Homecoming is not only an electric record of her performance there, but also an account of her impressive work ethic and attention to detail. More than all of that, even, it’s a movie that doesn’t ignore what the performance represents: Beyoncé was the first Black woman to headline the festival, and the movie celebrates that moment, as well as the power and joy of Black excellence.
There are a million shows about diet and lifestyle out there, but this miniseries feels a little different, focusing on the real-life stories of people living in what filmmaker and author Dan Buettner calls ‘blue zones’: areas of the world where people consistently live much longer than average. Health advice hits harder when it comes from the mouth of a 104-year-old-woman, or from a group of siblings in their 90s, surrounded by entire communities living longer (and happier) lives.
So-called ‘conversion therapy’ (a practice that targets LGBTQ people with the aim of changing their sexual preferences or gender identities) might seem like an easy enough target—but it’s still perfectly legal in most of the world and much of the United States. Filmmaker Kristine Stolakis takes an empathetic approach, interviewing both survivors of therapy dealing with the repercussions, as well as with former leaders and advocates for therapy grappling with the consequences of their actions.
Released in 2018, Morgan Neville’s profile of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood host Fred Rogers became the highest-grossing biographical documentary of all time. As gentle and patient as Mister Rogers himself, the movie explores both the genuine compassion and quiet fire that fueled him throughout his life. The archival footage and interviews with family and friends make clear that his determination to carve out a safe space for young kids to learn and grow was absolutely sincere, and also the kind of thing we need more of.
Christopher Wallace has been portrayed several times in both documentary and narrative films, but almost all of them focus on his death—understandable, really, given that his still-unsolved murder was bookended by albums titled ‘Ready to Die’ and the posthumous ‘Life After Death.’ There’s a mythic quality to his final act that often overshadows his life, but I Got a Story to Tell avoids falling into that trap, instead dealing with his life, thanks in part to the involvement of his mother and others who knew him. It’s the story of an artist’s life cut short, but one that doesn’t shy away from the darker side of his life.
ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) participated in this documentary miniseries, presumably believing that they’d come off far better than they do. Filmmakers Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz were given unprecedented access to the agency, both in the field and behind desks. What’s revealed, very often from the mouths of agents and administrators, is a portrait of a brutal agency operating on the bare fringes of legality, with devastating impacts on the lives of those desperate to experience the promise of America.
COVID pushed the opioid epidemic out of the headlines for a time, but it certainly hasn’t gone away. This thoroughly fascinating documentary miniseries revisits the beginnings of the crisis in an unexpected way: The barely investigated murder of his son set pharmacist Dan Schneider on a quest for justice that gave him the skills and resources to examine the growing surge in OxyContin prescriptions in the early 2000s. It’s an unlikely lens through which to explore an ongoing, and deadly, epidemic.
With a straightforward style (this doesn’t require any flash), Ordinary Men adapts the book by Christopher R. Browning to tell the story of, in part, Reserve Police Battalion 101 of the German Order Police. This group, and others like it, executed around two million German Jews and other ‘undesirables’—but weren’t composed primarily of fanatical Nazis or specially trained agents of the regime, but normal conscripts who, the film argues, committed atrocities more out of social dynamics than any hate that they brought to the job. It’s a brisk, chilling, not to mention timely, reminder of how easily ordinary citizens can fall into fascism under the right conditions.
Peter Jackson’s documentary is a technical feat, but it’s also a stunningly emotional bit of time travel. Taking archival film from the World War I-era, most of it previously unseen, Jackson and company colorized and upgraded the footage using modern techniques, adding highly detailed sound effects and voice performances to create a document of the experiences of the British soldiers who fought. The only narration comes from interviews with those who were there, and the result is a poignant, moving piece that makes a war from over a century ago feel very present.
Beginning in 1974, FIFA Uncovered charts decades of corruption in the global body governing soccer (or, rather, football). That was the year when new president João Havelange took over, making broad changes designed to take the sport global—a wildly successful operation that, throughout this miniseries, increasingly comes to feel like a deal with the devil. Bribery, corruption, racketeering: They’re all here, making the documentary feel, at times, like a true crime drama.
A far more upbeat sports documentary, The Last Dance chronicles the life and basketball career of Michael Jordan, focusing on the title-winning 1997-1998 season for the Chicago Bulls. The miniseries argues that there’s never been a team like this one, before or since, and uses hundreds of hours of never-before-seen archival video and interviews, all of which justify 10 episodes—the fascinating, feel-good doc feels like it’s just the right length.
Now in his late 90s, David Attenborough remains every bit as prolific as he’s ever been, perhaps having developed a greater sense of urgency in his mission to educate on issues of the environment and conservation. His focus in Our Planet, Netflix’s first nature documentary miniseries, is on species endangered by climate change. A spin-off of the Planet Earth series, its wall-to-wall, high-definition nature footage is every bit as stunning as you’d expect.
A fascinating look at golden-age Hollywood during the years of World War II, the series focuses on five directors: John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens, examining both their film work and war service, with modern filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, and Francis Ford Coppola weighing in. Narrated by Meryl Streep narrates, there are some fascinating and unexpected beats here, as when William Wyler refuses to make a recruitment film for Black soldiers after learning of the tremendous racism within the armed forces, or when the racist depictions of Japanese people in the films come back to bite the War department.
This series, about survivors of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, focuses smartly on the women who were kept in line by leader Warren Jeffs and others through psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. The interviews are chilling, as is the recovered video footage from the community. It’s all deeply disturbing, but the documentary largely avoids the true-crime trap of feeling exploitative.
Though the film is several years old now, the crisis born out of Syria’s civil war has hardly abated, and global conflicts continue to displace people worldwide—so this moving and sometimes painful documentary about young refugees remains tragically relevant. And Born in Syria does a particularly good job of tracing that human element by following seven kids forced to leave their homes, only to find that the worst for them was far from over.
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