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The best Netflix documentaries

Joe Exotic in 'Tiger King'
Joe Exotic in 'Tiger King' (Image credit: Netflix)

When it comes to original content, Netflix is currently completely dominating the documentary game. With feature films, docu-series, and reality shows that skirt the line between scripted and documentative, there’s something for everyone. Given how wide the range is for what could be considered a documentary, for the purposes of this list we’re excluding food shows (because they’re all great), celebrity profiles (we’re sorry, Beyonce) and short films (we’re also sorry, Long Shot). This list is in no way exhaustive, but rather a showcase of some of the best documentaries offered by Netflix.

13th

Ava DuVernay, the first Black woman to have a feature film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, created the gripping and poignant documentary 13th. Named for the 13th Amendment in the United States’ Constitution that abolished slavery and put an end to involuntary servitude except as a punishment for conviction of a crime, DuVernay explores how this exception has perpetuated a history of racial injustice in the United states through things like (but not limited to) lynchings, disenfranchisement, Jim Crow laws, the prison industrial complex, the school to prison pipeline, and the war on drugs. Since its release, the film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary, and won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special.

Abducted in Plain Sight

It’s horrifying when a child is abducted, but it’s absolutely unthinkable when it happens twice. Abducted in Plain Sight focuses on the true life story of Jan Broberg Felt, who was kidnapped at age 12 and 14 by Robert Berchtold, a family friend, right in front of her parents’ faces. In a tight 90 minutes, Abducted in Plain Sight became one of the most heavily talked about and memed Netflix releases, simply because viewers could not wrap their heads around the wild and unrelenting facts of this horrific story of brainwashing, assault, and religious manipulation. 

Athlete A

What is considered to be the largest sexual abuse scandals in sports history, more than 265 women, including former members of the United States’ Olympic Gymnastics team, alleged Dr. Larry Nassar had sexually assaulted them. Athlete A follows the reporting team from the Indianapolis Star as they investigate these claims of abuse. Two years after the investigation began, Larry Nassar is behind bars and serving over 150 years in prison. Athlete A is extremely difficult to watch at times, but brave survivors refused to be silenced or pushed aside and a person who spent his life committing heinous acts of violence was brought to justice because of that strength. Their stories deserve to be heard.

Audrie and Daisy

The internet can be a wonderful way for humans to connect to one another, but it can also bring out the absolute worst in its users. Audrie Pott and Daisy Coleman were both survivors of not only sexual assault, but the unforgivable aftermath of bullying, harassment, and mass sharing of their trauma through social media. Audrie and Daisy won a Peabody Award as "an honest, heartbreaking, and timely tale of sexual assault and social media, and the repercussions it can have on young lives." Coleman would go on to co-found SafeBAE, a survivor-founded, youth-led organization for sexual assault prevention, bystander intervention education. Unfortunately, both Pott and Coleman are no longer with us, which makes the documentary feel all the more important.

Casting JonBenet

JonBenet Ramsey’s unsolved murder is perhaps one of the greatest sources for conspiracy theories and armchair detective work of the last 50 years. In Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet, the story of what happened on that fateful Christmas night is told not as an objective presentation of true crime facts, but rather through the retelling of personal thoughts belonging to actors in Boulder, Colorado, where the Ramsey murder took place. Actors auditioning for members of the Ramsey family bring their own beliefs of guilt or innocence to their performances, and their unscripted thoughts on what happened as well as how the event impacted their lives all form arguably the most compelling film discussing JonBenet Ramsey.

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution

As part of Barack and Michelle Obama’s programming Netflix through their production company, Higher Ground, Crip Camp at first feels like a love letter to Camp Jened, a place described as a “summer camp for the handicapped run by hippies.” The camp was an oasis built out of necessity for youth living with disabilities, but the euphoria felt by attendees of a world where they were provided with truly equal access birthed a movement of radical activists and community organizers fighting for accessibility legislation. For those born in a post-ADA world (the Americans with Disabilities Act wasn’t signed until 1990), Crip Camp is a vital glimpse into the history of people with disabilities in America. 

Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen

Let’s just cut right to the chase--transgender representation in film and television is problematic at best and downright dangerous at worst. As stated in the documentary Disclosure and cited from GLAAD study, 80 percent of Americans don't actually know a transgender person, meaning many people develop their thoughts and opinions on trans people based on what they see in media. Serving somewhat as “Trans Representation 101,” the documentary presents a historical look at Hollywood's portrayal of transgender people and how these portrayals have real-life impact on the treatment and lives of the transgender community.

Don’t F**k with Cats

Rule 1 of the internet: don’t f**k with cats. After horrific shock videos began popping up on the internet of an unknown individual torturing and killing cats, online sleuths started Facebook groups and began working together to try and identify who was behind these videos to bring them to justice. Everything from looking at the type of outlets on the wall to using Google maps to “walk down the streets” to find background locations of photos, the internet figured out the culprit was a man named Luka Magnotta. For those that know the name, the documentary goes exactly where you’d expect. For those that don’t? Go in blind, but know that the videos are alluded to and described in great detail. 

The Keepers

In 1969, Sister Catherine Cesnik disappeared and was later found in the woods four months later--a victim of murder. The case ran cold after what would likely be considered a lackluster investigation. Over the years, many of her former students claim that the crime was covered up by both the church and the authorities. The docuseries isn’t just a story about Sister Catherine, but also about a priest at the high school, A. Joseph Maskell who was accused of sexually abusing students, an allegation confirmed by Sister Catherine before her death. Now, 50 years later, new life has been breathed into the cold-case and the flame for justice for Sister Catherine has been reignited.

Kingdom of Us

A man named Paul Shanks died by suicide in 2007, his wife and seven children were left to mourn together, and start the process of trying to find healing. A number of the Shanks’ children are on the autism spectrum, an aspect the documentary handles with respect and care. Ultimately, Kingdom of Us is about a grief, family, and the fear of carrying generational trauma into the future. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

The Last Dance

Now an Emmy award winning docu-series, The Last Dance centers around the career of perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan, and his final season with the Chicago Bulls. Perhaps I’m biased as a child who grew up in the Chicagoland area during the 1990s, but there’s an unmistakable passion in every episode that despite knowing many of the stories told and the outcome of the season, it was hard not to binge watch the series. The series paints Jordan in a pretty favorable light (his company Jump 23 helped produce) but the remarkable gallery of talking heads commenting and showcased throughout the series is unprecedented. Considering how sports currently look unlike it ever has before, this trip back to the beforetime evokes all of the good feelings of basketball’s greatest dynasty.

Making a Murderer

Every so often, something is made that manages to break all social and cultural barriers and find an almost universal appeal to audiences. True crime absolutely dominates the documentary and podcasting worlds, but the powder keg of murder, corruption, and captivating characters gave Netflix one of their most explosive hits. The story of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey regarding the murder of Teresa Halbach is one that is littered with complication and confusion, and audiences everywhere couldn’t look away. The response was so great, Brendan Dassey’s case was reopened and a new investigation was launched regarding his allegedly coerced confessions. A second series serving as an update was released a few years later, but fans are still speculating about what really happened even today.

Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado

A hero hailing from Puerto Rico and a cultural phenomenon in the Latine community, astrologer/actor/dancer/writer/television personality Walter Mercado was undoubtedly one of the most fascinating people on the planet. For decades, Mercado hosted an astrological prediction show on Spanish speaking cable channels, that was less Miss Cleo and more Liberace. Mercado flaunted elaborate costumes and capes that would rival Elton John, and despite his flamboyant expression, was beloved the world over. The documentary is a celebration of Mercado’s life and impact on the Latine community, but also the complicated history of an icon.

ReMastered

For those missing old episodes of Vh1’s Behind the Music, this is the docu-series for you. Netflix seeks to explore the unusual careers of some of music’s most legendary artists, without ever skimping on the imperfect lives of these superstars. Each episode focuses mainly on one of music’s most sensationalized tales, highlighting the truth behind stories like Johnny Cash’s visit to meet Nixon, the martyrdom of Victor Jara in Chile, and the murder of Jam Master Jay. This eight part series is a must watch for music fans everywhere.

Shirkers

Singapore’s first road movie was made in 1992 by Sandi Tan and her American mentor, Georges, but due to Georges stealing all of the footage, the film was never seen. Until now. The 16 mm film was recovered two decades later, and its discovery inspires Tan to immediately dive onto a personal quest to track down Georges and figure out what the hell happened after all these years. Shirkers the narrative feature was never made, but Shirkers the documentary is an inspiring story about D.I.Y. filmmaking, following your passions, and the love of movies.

The Staircase

The court case of novelist Michael Peterson is just as bizarre as the circumstances surrounding the death of his wife, Kathleen Peterson. If you ask Michael, Kathleen died after falling down the stairs, but medical examiners believe Kathleen’s injuries were more closely connected to abuse. Throughout the trial, a number of wild-as-hell conspiracy theories came out of the woodwork to explain Kathleen’s death, including the suspicion that she was attacked... by an owl. The Staircase was a crime made popular by its mentioning on popular podcasts like ‘My Favorite Murder,’ but the Netflix series cemented it as bonafide pop culture phenomenon.

The Social Dilemma

Maybe it’s because we’re all trapped at home and existing on our screens 24/7, but Netflix has another cultural takeover on their hands with The Social Dilemma. Sure, we all know that social media is bad for us, but The Social Dilemma breaks down just how truly and certifiably Bad™ our dependency on social media has completely warped our perspectives on reality and completely wrecked the way society functions. The documentary sprinkles dramatizations throughout which serve as both warning bells and unexpected relief from the increasing understanding that we’re being technologically manipulated, coded, and data mined by nefarious forces.

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness

Remember when the wildest thing about 2020 was trying to figure out if Joe Exotic was a real person and if Carole Baskin fed her late husband to tigers? Ah, to be young again. The world of  big cat conservationists, independent exotic zoo-keeping, and animal collectors is fascinating enough on its own, but when you throw in a rogue’s gallery of human cartoon characters, it’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion. The world immediately became obsessed with “the gay, gun-carrying redneck with a mullet” known as Joe Exotic, and considering Baskin nabbed a spot on the most recent season of Dancing with the Stars, tiger fever is still alive and well.

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Nina Simone is a legendary musician, but the only person who could ever fully explain the life of Miss Simone, is her. Unlike most documentaries that favor other people talking on behalf of the subject, What Happened, Miss Simone? is dominated by archival footage, taped interviews, and Simone’s own music serving as a parallel narrator. Nina Simone wasn’t just a gifted performer, but also a civil rights activist and loving mother. As one of Netflix’s most acclaimed documentaries, having been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, six Primetime Emmy Awards (winning Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special) and winning a Peabody Award. What Happened, Miss Simone? offers a look into the life of one of music’s greatest leading ladies.

Wild, Wild Country

The Duplass brothers serve as executive producers on a docu-series that has to be seen to be believed. While cults are surprisingly well known in America, the Rajneeshpuram community frequently goes unmentioned. Controversial Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (Osho) and his one-time personal assistant Ma Anand Sheela are the major players in this would-be Oregon desert utopia, but the conflict the group has with local ranchers eventually builds to the first bioterrorist attack in United States History. The documentary focuses heavily on how this situation impacted the laws surrounding separation of church and state and illegal wiretapping rather than the abhorrent details of the cult itself, but it’s an addictive watch regarding an oft forgotten moment in American history.