- Documentaries connect us all. The element that most viewers tend to gravitate toward when it comes to documentaries is the essence of real life that one gleans from the assemblages of historical footage, photographs, talking heads, pre-recorded audio, and sequences of physical excursion or simple quotidian tasks. There’s an undeniable feeling of authenticity even when you’re watching something clearly biased. Even in cases where the film’s overall focus is narrowed to fit a pre-conceived narrative, there’s an unmistakable feeling of intimacy, of being let into a filmmaker’s brain for a quick flash. In using snippets of the real world, in a variety of forms, great documentaries use images of universal, familiar existence to impart something tremendously personal, even intimate. And with the recent explosion of the “docuseries” format, we have the ability to go deeper into a story than ever before.
Netflix has a bountiful of great documentaries that cover a diverse range of subjects, from true crime to sports to even filmmaking. Below, we’ve assembled a list of what we believe are the best documentaries on Netflix right now.
Director: Ava DuVernay
Ava DuVernay follows up her acclaimed film Selma with a searing documentary that looks at the mass incarceration of minorities following the passage of the 13th amendment. As the documentary points out, it’s not just ingrained cultural racism that results in the widespread incarceration of African-Americans and other minorities. There’s a financial incentive as well, and it’s good business to lock people up. 13th systematically goes through the decades following the passage of the 13th amendment to show how black people were targeted by the media, by the government, and by businesses to create a new form of slavery. It is a movie that will infuriate you, depress you, and hopefully spur you to action against a system that has done egregious harm to our fellow citizens.
American Murder: The Family Next Door
Director: Jenny Popplewell
The Netflix original documentary American Murder: The Family Next Door is a harrowing, infuriating chronicle of the 2018 Watts family murders that uses social media posts, law enforcement recordings, text messages, and home video footage to revisit the events that unfolded. It examines the disappearance of Shanann watts and her two children, and the horrible events that followed as her husband was questioned by police as to his potential involvement in her disappearance. The film largely keeps the focus on the victims, making it a standout amongst many true crime documentaries. It lays bare the lies that our social media profiles can carry, and the toxicity that festers in the heart of far too many American relationships.
The six-episode docuseries High Score is one of the best documentaries Netflix has made thus far. This is an in-depth look at the origin story of video games as we know them, as told by the people who made them. It begins with a deep-dive into the shift from arcade games to in-home consoles and chronicles everything from the game-changing arrival of the NES to how Sega built a strategy to challenge Nintendo. This is far more in-depth and candid than you’re likely expecting, and when you finish you’ll be begging for a second season that gets into N64 and beyond.
The Last Dance
Director: Jason Hehir
You don’t have to love basketball to be wholly enthralled and wowed by the 10-episode docuseries The Last Dance. Over the course of 10 hours, the story of Michael Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls is juxtaposed with the story of his earlier life and career, and the careers of Bulls teammates like Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. This flashing back and forth always keeps things interesting, contextualizing the 1997-98 Bulls season by filling in the blanks of what came before. You’ll be amazed at Jordan’s skill and drive, but the docuseries also has some eye-opening and surprisingly candid moments from one of the greatest atheletes to ever live. If you were a fan of basketball in the 90s you’ll find much to connect with, but even if you don’t really watch basketball, The Last Dance is a fascinating chronicle of a man who spent his live striving for greatness at all costs.
The Speed Cubers
Director: Sue Kim
At a scant 40 minutes, The Speed Cubers delivers more of an emotional wallop than feature-length documentaries. The story follows competitive Rubix Cube solvers Feliks Zemdegs from Australia, who was the uncontested world champion until the arrival of American Max Park. What could be the premise for a story about serious rivalry in a niche sport instead becomes a beautiful tale of friendship and heroism. You see, Feliks is Max’s hero, and Feliks, instead of feeling threatened by Max’s rise, instead encourages and congratulates his rival. When so many stories about competition easily give way to negativity, it’s truly heartwarming to see such a positive and uplifting tale. Take a lunch break to watch this one. You’ll be glad you did.
Director: Asif Kapadia
You don’t have to be a fan of—or even familiar with—Formula 1 racing to appreciate the 2010 documentary Senna. Presented entirely through archival footage, the film chronicles the life and shocking death of Brazilian racing champion Ayrton Senna, who made his triumphant debut at the 1984 Brazilian Grand Prix and died in a horrible accident at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. The film also chronicles Senna’s rivalry with fellow driver Alain Prost, and fans of Ron Howard’s underrated narrative film Rush will no doubt find Senna of particular interest. It’s both thrilling and heartbreaking in equal measure, and Kapadia’s unique choices result in a film that puts you inside Senna’s POV, instead of at arm’s reach.
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness
Directors: Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin
Each installment of the seven-episode docuseries Tiger King is crazier than the last, to the point that you may find yourself saying multiple times, “Well surely things can’t possibly get any weirder than this.” You’d be 100% wrong. Tiger King follows the exploits of Joe Exotic, a flamboyant and extremely confident owner of a private big cat zoo in Oklahoma. The story of Joe Exotic is stranger than fiction, involving lies, guns, a bid for the U.S. presidency, and a murder-for-hire plot. This is a thing that must be seen to be believed.
Directors: Nicole Newnham and Jim Lebrecht
The first Netflix documentary to hail from executive producers Michelle and Barack Obama was the Oscar-winning American Factory, and their second effort Crip Camp is just as great if not better. The film shines a light on the individuals who spent most of their adult lives fighting for basic human rights, with many having attended a camp for disabled tends called Camp Jened in the 1970s. Incredible archival footage from this camp opens the film, but we then follow the various people we’ve met as they spend the next few decades embroiled in activism to pass legislation to make the world accessible for those with disabilities. It’s a fight that never should have had to be fought in the first place, and it’s both inspiring and infuriating to see how tirelessly these individuals had to push and push and push to affect even the tiniest bit of change.
Director: Lana Wilson
The Taylor Swift Netflix documentary Miss Americana is far from your typical music doc. It isn’t even really all that focused on Swift’s music so much as it is on Swift as a person. More specifically, it’s a film about Swift’s long journey to figuring out how not to care what people think about her, and how that manifests in her feminist awakening and decision to publicly express her political opinion—which we see occur in real-time. Some will ding the film for being too manicured, and in truth it’s impossible to tell just how heavy a hand Swift had in the tailoring of the documentary re: her self image. But the film’s true moments of insight are hard to ignore, and it’s fascinating to watch Swift come to terms with who she is as a human being while also being one of the most famous people on the planet.
Directors: Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert
Do you want to feel good about the state of the American industry and the treatment of its skilled labor force? Then skip this flick. American Factory is the award-winning look at a defunct General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio which is given a new lease on life when a Chinese billionaire invests in it as a new American glass-making facility for his company, Fuyao. If you’ve ever worked on a factory floor or been part of either side of the picket line, you know how this story goes.
This documentary is the first title under the Higher Ground banner, a production company formed by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama and distributed by Netflix. But it’s first a production of Participant Media, which screened the documentary at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival where it won the Best Documentary award and got the attention of Netflix and the Obamas. And just in case their involvement sways you one way or the other, try to check that bias at the door; American Factory tells of the plight of the skilled labor force, be they American or Chinese, as easy victims of the rich and powerful, be they American or Chinese. And it’s also the story of the American Dream, and whether that’s a fact or a fallacy.
There’s also a stinger at the end lamenting the ultimate decline of the human workforce due to automation, yet it’s worth remembering that the machines themselves are simply tools that improve the production pipeline; it’s still a human being, and often a bean-counting, bottom-liner who stands to make a few more points on their stock portfolio, who makes the call to replace flesh-and-blood workers at the end of the day.
The Great Hack
Directors: Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim
The 2019 Netflix documentary The Great Hack takes a deep dive into the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, and how, despite Facebook’s denials, the social media giant used personal data harvested by its users. Through interviews with investigative journalists and Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Brittany Kaiser, the film offers a shocking deep-dive of how data has become the most valuable resource on the planet, and how data is used to target users with ads and fake “viral videos” and news stories to swing major elections. One of the most disturbing documentaries of 2019, full-stop.
Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
Writers/Directors: Randall Lobb, Robert McCallum
Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe tells you exactly what is waiting for you right there in the title. From filmmakers Lobb (Turtle Power, and the upcoming Conan the Barbarian and The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance documentaries) and McCallum (Nintendo Quest) comes a deep dive into all things He-Man. From the chaotic creation of the musclebound hero as a Mattel toy franchise dreamed up as a competitor to Kenner, to the low points of the brand in the late 80s and 90s, and the modern resurgence of the property thanks to a dedicated fanbase and savvy creative decisions, this documentary is a one-stop shop for all things MotU.
In just about 95 minutes, this lengthy chat with creatives behind the scenes of the brand, spanning from the early 80s to today, tells the untold tale of how one of the most iconic creations came to be. It’s fascinating enough for general audiences to see how the sausage is made in industries as varied and yet interconnected as toys, comics, cartoons, live-action movies, and more, yet it’s definitely made for the diehard He-Man and She-Ra fans out there. And if you’re a collector, watching the doc might not be enough for you; luckily you can add the newly released home video to your MotU collection starting September 3rd!