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The best Netflix documentaries to stream right now

Best Netflix Documentaries - My Octopus Teacher
My Octopus Teacher is one of the very best documentaries available on Netflix. (Image credit: Netflix)

Looking for the best Netflix documentaries? We've got you covered. 

Netflix is full to the brim with original content, and there are plenty of documentaries available to suit practically every taste. With feature films, docu-series, and reality shows that skirt the line between scripted drama and documentary on a boatload of topics, there really is something for everyone. 

Here's our pick of the best Netflix documentaries available on the platform right now.

The best Netflix documentaries to stream right now:

13th

Best Netflix Documentaries - Ava DuVernay at a special screening of her doc, 13th

Ava DuVernay at 13th's special premiere screening. (Image credit: Netflix / Marion Curtis)

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.

My Octopus Teacher

Best Netflix Documentaries - My Octopus Teacher

(Image credit: Netflix)

My Octopus Teacher took the Oscar for Best Documentary this year, and it’s easy to see why. 

This heartwarming Netflix original follows the adventures of filmmaker Craig Foster who forged a very unusual relationship with a young octopus whilst free-diving in a kelp forest in False Bay ( close to Cape Town, South Africa). 

Craig followed the octopus around for close to a year, playing with her and watching to see how the fish survives in its environment. Through his observations, Craig reconnects with his passion for film-making, all the while documenting his friendship with the octopus and the breathtaking sights beneath the waves in stunning detail with the help of Blue Planet II cinematographer, Roger Horrocks.

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. 

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, and 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

Made by Michelle and Barack Obama's 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. 

As stated in the documentary Disclosure and cited from a 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,” Disclosure presents a historical look at Hollywood's portrayal of transgender people and how these portrayals have a real-life impact on the treatment and lives of the transgender community.

The Movies That Made Us

The Movies That Made Us is a must-watch for every film buff who's ever wanted to get a deeper look at how they made some of the best films from the last few decades.

Through interview and talking head segments from cast and crew members, each episode focuses on one of many classic films and tells the story of how it came to be from beginning to end.

Some of the films that have been explored so far include classic horror movies like Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, Dirty Dancing, the beloved Christmas film Elf, Forrest Gump, and Ghostbusters, to name just a few.

Don’t F**k with Cats

Rule 1 of the internet: don’t mess 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. 

Formula 1: Drive to Survive

Best Car Shows - Formula 1: Drive to Survive

(Image credit: Netflix)

Formula 1: Drive to Survive is a fascinating opportunity to go behind the scenes on one of the world's greatest racing competitions goes to plan each year.

Starting with the 2018 Championship, each series gives viewers a sneak peek at the inner workings of one year in the racing calendar, with the newest season documenting COVID's impact on Formula 1 and how the Championship adapted to the restrictions that were in place around the world. 

Along the way, you'll not only get to know top racing drivers but also the teams working flat out to try and bring home the win each year. Drive to Survive is so good it's also found its way onto our list of the best car TV shows.

The Last Dance

Now an Emmy award-winning docuseries, 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. 

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. 

Featuring unaired footage from the truly unforgettable 1997-98 basketball season, The Last Dance takes you back in time and 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 its most explosive hits. The story of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey regarding the murder of Teresa Halbach is one that is littered with complications and confusion, and audiences everywhere couldn’t look away. 

The response was so great, that 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 to this day.

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 docuseries 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 into 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 a bonafide pop culture phenomenon.

The Social Dilemma

Maybe it’s because we were all trapped at home and existing on our screens 24/7 at one point, but Netflix has another cultural takeover on its hands with The Social Dilemma when it was released. 

Sure, we all know that social media is bad for us, but The Social Dilemma breaks down just how our dependency on social media has completely warped our perspectives on reality and 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

Best Netflix Documentaries - Tiger King

Joe Exotic from Tiger King. (Image credit: Netflix)

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 even pushed Carole Baskin so far into the spotlight she ended up appearing in the 2020 season of Dancing with the Stars.

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Best Netflix Documentaries - What Happened, Nina Simone?

Nina Simone (Image credit: Netflix)

Nina Simone is a legendary musician, but the only person who could ever fully explain the life of Miss Simone is Nina herself. 

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 to offer a look into the life of one of music’s greatest leading ladies. Not only was she a gifted performer, but Nina Simone was also a civil rights activist and loving mother. 

What Happened, Miss Simone? is 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.

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 the 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.

High Score

Best Netflix Documentaries - High Score

(Image credit: Netflix)

Released in 2020, High Score is a docu-series that traces the early history of video gaming, one of the world’s most lucrative forms of entertainment.

Through interviews with some of the creative geniuses behind gaming classics like Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, and Sonic the Hedgehog, High Score explores just how the likes of Nintendo, Sega, and Namco took over the globe and transformed their mascots into some of the most recognizable pop culture icons around.

Narrated by the voice of Mario himself, Charles Martinet, High Score is a great insight into the world of gaming and covers the essential points from the early parts of this exciting new medium’s history.

Martin Shore
Staff Writer at WhatToWatch.com

Martin is a Staff Writer with WhatToWatch.com, where he produces a variety of articles focused on the latest and greatest films and TV shows. 

Some of his favorite shows are What We Do In The Shadows, Bridgerton, Gangs of London, The Witcher, Doctor Who, and Ghosts. When he’s not watching TV or at the movies, Martin’s probably still in front of a screen playing the latest video games, reading, or watching the NFL.