Whether you like your documentaries about history, nature, entertainment, biography, or social issues, Netflix has you covered. Netflix has a broad selection of great documentaries for everyone. Here are some of the ones we like best, streaming on Netflix now. You may also want to check out our separate list of Netflix’s best crime documentaries.
Narrated by Kevin Spacey, this film makes an American generation's most public tragedy new. It combines both well-known and rare footage of the events to give an intensely detailed account of the day.
This intriguing and sensitive documentary profiles some of the most prominent LGBT personalities in media, sports, and politics. It gives a closer look at the choices, triumphs, and persecutions that these celebrities have experienced.
In post-WWII America, being gay was not only illegal, it was considered a mental illness. An actor as good-looking as Tab Hunter was a valuable commodity in Hollywood, and they weren’t about to lose that by letting a star come out as gay. The only thing worse, in 1950 Los Angeles, was being a communist.
Any cat lover knows that their pets hold onto some of their undomesticated nature. This nature documentary is filled with fun facts on how cats make good pets, as well as the ways in which they are still wild.
In this film by Peter Hutchison, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott, iconic intellectual Noam Chomsky states his case for how the bulk of America’s wealth and influence has been transferred into the hands of a few. He discusses the impact of money on politics, blasts the influence of advertising culture as well as the modern media, and discusses how massive student loan debt has created a generation of passive workers. He also talks about America’s addiction to shopping and the hypnosis of the populace by their devices, which makes us prone to irrational and emotional decisions. A fascinating documentary about problems that affect all Americans.
Food can be art, and chefs can be artists. This Emmy-nominated series focuses on superstar chefs Niki Nakayama, Francis Mallmann, Ben Shewry, Massimo Bottura, Dan Barber, and Magnus Nilsson, exploring the creative and visionary components of their work.
Barbara Kopple created this documentary, which follows R&B singer Sharon Jones' battle with cancer. We are introduced to her indomitable resilience, which was a strong factor in her becoming a recording star at age 40. Twenty years later, she was diagnosed with Stage 2 cancer and forced to cut off the dreadlocks that had become part of her stage persona. The strength she shows is matched by her bandmates, the Dap-Kings, whose careers are up in the air, and who are worried about booking performances in advance, not knowing what the state of the star’s health will be. This film is touching, uplifting, and well worth the time investment.
Dawn Porter's incisive documentary examines how reproductive health clinics fight to stay open in the US in spite of laws designed to close them. TRAP laws have forced clinics, doctors and patients to adhere to ridiculous rules with the intention of diminishing the number of abortion procedures that take place. States like Alabama, Mississippi and Texas have been hardest hit by these laws, making the clinics who can stay open in greater demand. Trapped is a clearly pro-choice documentary that challenges the assumed distance between religious identity and abortion. The film also provides clarity about the lack of complications with the abortion process itself. It is respectful and allows the voices of the pro-lifers to be heard, while the workers in the clinics are portrayed as hard-working people who just want to do their lawful, self-appointed duties to protect their patients. A worthy film, whichever side of the argument you fall on.
Billionare entrepreneur Richard Branson and hip-hop hero Snoop Dogg are interviewed in this documentary by Brett Harvey and Michael Bobroff, which explored the arguments for and against legalizing marijuana, and the people on both sides of the fight.
Beginning in the 1950s, the film explores the rivalry between rock-climbing pioneers Royal Robbins and Warren and continues to chart the course of the sport's techniques up until modern day. It captures the adventure and camaraderie surrounding the sport of rock climbing and the incredible feats performed by the climbing champions as they continued to push the limits of what was humanly possible. It also charts the history of Campground 4, where the climbers lived, and the countercultures developed by the various groups there. Stone Masters, Stone Monkeys, and others are presented with humor and suspense, against the backdrop of some of the most beautiful scenery to be found anywhere. Remember to breathe as you watch this breathtaking and thrilling adventure.
This documentary by Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn exposes the large role the meat and dairy play in global warming on the planet. According to the film, if we took every car off the road on the entire planet, it wouldn’t reverse the environmental impact caused by humanity’s reliance on animal agriculture. This documentary is enlightening and provides food for thought on a problem that has been kept a secret, even by environmental groups.
This documentary explores some of the dangerous messages culture teaches young boys, and asks what we can do to raise them in a healthy way. From a young age, boys are taught to wear a mask over their feelings, to be tough and aggressive rather than thoughtful and kind. In some cases, they are even conditioned to be violent and abusive to women. The film by Jennifer Siebel Newsom is the follow-up to Miss Representation, which examined sexism toward women.
When NFL quarterback Michael Vick's dogfighting ring was busted, 50 dogs were rescued. Although Vick did less than two years in prison and was back playing football in no time, the abused dogs were in terrible shape. Even PETA and the ASPCA wanted them all to be put down. However, advocacy groups protested the plan, and some of the dogs--the stars of this film--were successfully rehabilitated and went on to live happy lives. This is a feel-good film, not preachy, and doesn’t go into the problem of dogfighting as a whole.
This documentary by Michele Josue reenacts the beating and murder of Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old gay college student who was tied to a fence, tortured, and left there to suffer until he succumbed to his injuries 18 hours later. Although painful to watch, the film focuses on Matthew’s life and who he was as a person, as well as all the good things that came of his death, such as the long-overdue legislation against hate crimes. The film also asks what role Christianity has to play in healing, as opposed to hiding, hate. Ultimately cathartic, the documentary humanizes Shepard and those he left behind, and ends on a positive note.
This touching and heartwarming film follows the rehabilitation of dogs who, in the past, would have been euthanized. Now they get a second chance through the work of the ASPCA’s Behavioral Rehabilitation Center. These dogs go on to find adoption and happy homes.
The police are very good at getting confessions out of suspects--so good, in fact, that people have confessed to murders they didn't commit. This Netflix original documentary series explores cases where people confessed to murder, but then claimed to be innocent. It looks at the details of the cases, but especially at the interrogation tactics that got the confessions which the convicts now claim were lies.
This excellent film by Rory Kennedy uses archival footage and present-day interviews to recount the evacuation of the Saigon American Embassy on April 29, 1975, when America finally withdrew from Vietnam. Although the U.S. gave the order to only evacuate American citizens, there were many Vietnamese families at the embassy, and many defied the orders in order to rescuing them. Kennedy unearths the unexpected and unreported heroism of the day North Vietnam took Saigon. One famous image featured in the film is that of helicopters being pushed overboard from ships in order to make room for the next helicopter to land, and to allow more people to board.
This respectful film by Richard Trank is narrated by Ben Kingsley. One of hundreds of documentaries on Winston Churchill, this one focuses on the period of 1940-41, when Britain stood steadfast against the Nazis. It includes a recording of the radio address where Churchill informed the world that the Nazis were killing Jews.
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason directed this moving, Kickstarter-funded film based on a viral YouTube video. It’s about Shane Bitney Crone and Tom Bridegroom, an unmarried gay couple in their 20s. When Tom Bridegroom died at the age of 29, his partner, Shane is shut out of the funeral by Bridegroom’s parents, although the two had shared a mortgage and an entertainment business--but he had little recourse because their partnership was not legally recognized. Bridegroom is a touching portrait of a love story, and a good reminder of the harm anti-gay legislation and homophobia causes.
Screenwriter James Solomon tells the story of the Kitty Genovese murder case. At the time, the New York Times reported that there were 38 witnesses to the crime and that not one of them lifted a finger to call the police or help in any way. The film uncovers the truth. The witnesses did call the police, who didn’t respond properly. Many of the witnesses had no idea what was happening but did try to help when they heard Kitty screaming. The NY Times thought the cold-hearted city-dwellers made a better story and printed that instead. After the story was printed, partly as a result of the story, the 911 emergency line was established. The film not only tells the truth about the journalistic ethics involved, but also uncovers something the media has never explored: who Kitty Genovese was as a human being. I highly recommend it.
This film by Mary Dore is a visionary and heroic look at the struggles of the women’s movement between 1966 and 1971. It blends interviews with many of the women involved with archival footage and dramatization to reenact the time period. Dore credits Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and the Civil Rights Movement as catalysts of the women’s movement. Featured are groups like the Jane Collective, a Chicago-based underground abortion service that broke the law to courageously help women in need. Mary Dore frames the struggle as a huge success, pointing out the many triumphs along the way, as well as many of the problems women faced. Although I’m not convinced the Second Wave Feminism movement was a success, this film is still interesting and well worth the time it takes to watch it.
After receiving a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, the country singer Glen Campbell commenced his Goodbye Tour. Filmmaker Glen Keach documents the tour, along with the progression of the illness and its effect on the life of Glen Campbell and his loved ones.
This documentary captures a moment in time when a child dying of Leukemia is granted a Make-a-Wish day of crime-fighting with Batman. Without going into the kid’s or his family’s backstory, it tells a lighthearted story of those who showed up to do some good on the kid’s behalf. A worthy pursuit, though perhaps unfortunate in that it turned such a good moment into a profit-making enterprise.
Jeff Maloof and Charlie Siskel created this documentary about the woman who has become known as one of the best photographers of the 20th Century. The story goes, Jeff Maloof took a chance and bid on a box of negatives at auction, then stuck them in his closet for two years and forgot them. Finally, out of curiosity, he developed them. He put them up on a Flickr account and discovered that other people were as moved by her photos as he was. When he went in search of information about her, he discovered that Maier had taken 150,000 photos with a box camera she carried around her neck, and showed them to no one. In trying to understand why, the filmmakers uncover the dark and disturbed history of a mentally ill, abusive hoarder. Although fascinating, the film is also troubling, as it never justifies the violation of the artists’ privacy which it is based on.
This documentary captures the story of Lee Jong-Pak, a minister in Seoul who installed a depository for unwanted children in 2009. Since then, more than 600 babies have passed through Lee’s box to receive medical care, shelter, and hopefully, adoption.
Liz Garbus’ documentary captures the remarkable story and talent of the jazz singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone, beginning in 1976. Using archival footage that is mesmerizing to watch, the film captures all of the biggest moments of Simone’s life. Her abusive husband and her belief that civil rights must be won by violence are among the darker topics explored.
This documentary film by David Evans is the study of two men who both had famous Nazi fathers who participated in the extermination of Jews during the Holocaust. The first is Niklas Frank, who has made peace with his father’s mistakes and the justice he received. The other is Horst von Wachter. From Horst’s perspective, his father had no choice about being in charge of transportation to and from the camps. While sympathetic to those who lost their lives and families, he doesn’t hold his father responsible for the atrocities committed.
Amy Berg’s intimate documentary about Janis Joplin portrays the artist as a trailblazer for women artists, defying industry standards of appearance, performance, and behavior. It tells the story of a girl from Texas who always felt like a misfit, and her rise to fame and fortune for an all-too-brief career before she succumbed to heroin addiction at the age of 27. Joplin has a proved a difficult subject for a biopic, since everything about her was so unique and larger than life. There have been several planned, but none came to fruition. This film features Chan Marshall reading Janis’ correspondence, showing a much mellower and self-doubting persona than Joplin’s stage presence suggests.
Adam Nimoy directed this loving tribute to his father, Leonard Nimoy. He examines the sometimes-rocky relationship between father and son, as well as the life and career of the man who will forever be known as Star Trek's “Spock.” It is entertaining and lighthearted, with a tinge of sadness anchoring the content to reality. Throughout the film, Adam reads portions of a letter written by his father in 1973, and refers to problems with drugs and alcohol that led to him being unavailable as a father. Ultimately, Adam Nimoy loved his father, and this film is a tribute to Leonard, not to the character he played.
This documentary was co-directed by husband and wife team Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk. It’s about two teen girls who were raped, then bullied on social media and ostracized from their communities when they came forward. Both attempted suicide; only one survived. Audrie & Daisy dives into the perverse ways our culture treats the accusers and the accused in matters of sexual assault. This documentary is wrenching but very well done, and worth watching.
Britain's royal family is part political institution, part celebrity culture phenomenon. This documentary examines their lives through interviews with people close to the royal family. In six parts, the show starts with weddings, goes on to funerals, then to royal scandals and even royal pets. The series features clips from British journalists and royal family watchers. The main focus, however, is the family’s war with the tabloid media. It’s a fun, guilty pleasure--indulge.
Aileen Wuornos was America’s first female serial killer. This documentary by Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill includes the last interview before her execution. Broomfield also interviews many people instrumental in Aileen’s life, including childhood friends, former sexual partners, and her long-lost mother. It tells the story of how she hitchhiked to Florida at the age of 13 and became a prostitute, suffering untold torment and finally becoming the person who killed seven people. After that, she sat on death row for seven years, gradually going insane. Charlize Theron’s character in the movie Monster was based on Aileen Wuornos.
Neil deGrasse Tyson helms this documentary series about the mysteries of the universe, from the Big Bang to distant black holes. This is a modern update of the original, phenomenally popular Cosmos documentary hosted by Carl Sagan, and features more recent cosmological science.
This interesting documentary by Matt D’Avella seeks to uncover the whys and wherefores beneath the practice of minimalism. It follows Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, the self-proclaimed "Minimalists," on a book tour across America, talking to people about the practice and how they gave up six-figure incomes and promising careers to follow a streamlined, pared down way of life. In interviews, both men talk about the changes they’ve undergone and the gifts they’ve received as a result. I must admit, the film is effective--I was decluttering before it was over! Another topic of the film is the global impact of consumer culture. Various experts are interviewed on the topics of “compulsory consumption” and the resulting devastation to our environment, not to mention our psyches. Minimalism shows us an alternative: a way of life that wastes less, takes up less space, and--in the place of clutter--offers a more meaningful way of life.
During World War II, five of the best living Hollywood film directors went to the front lines in order to use their skills to help the war effort. This new documentary series looks at those directors--Frank Capra, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler, and John Forn--exploring their experiences during the war and the films they ultimately produced.
This is less a making-of documentary than a history of Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan’s Doyle’s beloved short stories and how they have transformed and been transformed by cinema. The writers of the modern version of Sherlock on Masterpiece Mystery, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, have made an extensive study of that history. It becomes clear very early on that their love of the source material has been a great inspiration for the show’s creators. They studied hundreds of film adaptations to come up with a new adaptation that was, after all, closely modeled on Conan Doyle’s stories as they originally appeared. Gatiss, who also plays Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft, reads from the books with adoration of the original prose, and both creators gleefully discuss the decision to place Sherlock in modern day while retaining the dialogue and feeling of the original. Members of the show’s cast join the discussion, including Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, who play Sherlock and Watson, respectively.
Australian filmmaker Jeremy Beasley tells the story of four individuals in Portland, Oregon (where else?) who decide to leave the life of debt, mortgages, and too much stuff behind and build their own tiny houses. In this romanticized, crowd-funded film, what comes to light is that the process of taking on the project and changing their relationships with their homes changes each of them in a more profound way than they ever expected. Each of them comes to the conclusion that building these homes is hard, and probably not worth it. One young couple, Mitchell Mast and Nikki Codding, finds their relationship threatened by the process, while Ben Campbell, whose father died while he was in college, discovered the layers of grief he still carried, processing them through the building process. This is made even more poignant by the fact that his inheritance from his father is the reason Ben could afford to build the tiny house at all. Karin Parramore, an acupuncturist in her early 50’s, wanted the experience of being able to live as a gypsy. In real life, however, she finds this prospect terrifying, even as she mourns the suicide of her partner of 10 years who died while she was building her home.
We all know who they are--River Phoenix, Heath Ledger, and Kurt Cobain are among the stars who died too soon. This German TV documentary series takes on one celebrity death per episode, and treats the subjects with immense respect. Their lives are well-researched and the episodes feel like hour-long documentary movies rather than reality TV. For instance, the River Phoenix episode tells the story of the cult the family belonged to when River was a child, and why they left. The show interviews two members of the band he was in, who had never spoken in public about their friend before. It tells of River’s compassion towards animals, and how he wanted to use his fame to change the world. I highly recommend this series--it's very well done.
This Netflix Original documentary follows a group of teenagers through Space Camp as they simulate a possible Mars mission. It talks about NASA's history after World War II, and its possible future. Besides the kids, this documentary features Bil Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and the theoretical physicist Michio Kaku.
Ava DuVernay follows the abolition of slavery with the 13th amendment to the present day, following the chain of events that have led to an astonishing 1 in 4 African American men doing prison time at some point during their lives. DuVernay points out the loophole in the 13th amendment, which says no one can be a slave or indentured servant, except in the case of criminals who have been duly convicted of a crime. Enraging and terrifying, this excellent documentary is highly recommended and leaves viewers with the strong desire to change this broken system.