documentaries come in all shapes in sizes, it seems the ones that the most talked-about docs are those that focus on social justice. Whether investigating issues of race, gender, income, criminal justice, or animal welfare, hard-hitting nonfiction films can often shed light on subjects that don't receive enough attention from the mainstream media. And a good place to find many of these enlightening social justice documentaries is on Netflix, which boasts a sizable library of such films.
As “social justice” has become a buzzword in recent years, some have distorted or lost sight of its meaning — but social justice simply refers to the basic idea that justice should be extended equally to all members of a society, and that certain groups shouldn’t be discriminated against or disenfranchised simply because they are different.
To learn more about these issues, check out some of the 21 documentaries below. You might just start to see the world in a different light.
13th, a critical look at systemic racism and the inequities of the U.S. prison system, received eight Primetime Emmy Award nominations, and took home two of them. Much of the acclaim for the documentary noted its insightful examination of history, with The New York Times saying 13th “shakes you up, but it also challenges your ideas about the intersection of race, justice and mass incarceration in the United States, subject matter that could not sound less cinematic.” Watch on Netflix 2 The Ivory Game
Social justice doesn't just apply to humans, as is evident in this gutting film. Executive produced by
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Ivory Game exposes the ivory trade, and specifically how elephants continued to be poached for their valuable tusks. The documentary reveals that if nothing changes, elephants could be extinct by 2031. Watch on Netflix 3 Virunga Virunga follows four people dedicated to protecting and preserving Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The film was a hit with critics and was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 87th Academy Awards. Barry Jenkins also announced he’d direct a feature-length film based on the documentary, with Leonardo DiCaprio as executive producer. Watch on Netflix 4 The Social Dilemma The Social Dilemma focuses on the pitfalls of social media, examining topics ranging from mental health to conspiracy theories to the rapid spread of misinformation. the film premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival to great acclaim — except from Facebook, of course. Watch on Netflix 5 Alt-Right: Act of Rage
Alt-Right: Act of Rage’s release at SXSW in 2018, some wondered whether investigating the rise of neo-Nazis was helpful, or whether giving more attention to such dangerous, dishonest figures could make the problem worse. Answers may vary, but Alt-Right: Age of Rage definitely doesn’t shy away from exposing the underbelly of American politics. Watch on Netflix 6 Living Undocumented
Executive produced by
Selena Gomez, Living Undocumented is a six-episode docuseries about undocumented immigrant families living in the United States. Upon its release, Gomez penned an op-ed for about the immigration crisis in the U.S., writing that “the worst criticism I can imagine is still nothing compared to what undocumented immigrants face every day. Fear shouldn’t stop us from getting involved and educating ourselves on an issue that affects millions of people in our country.” TIME Watch on Netflix 7 Hello, Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea Hello, Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea isn’t perfect, but it does lay a basic foundation to how white people can be better allies to people of color. Chelsea Handler, known for her stand-up comedy and late-night talk show, earnestly addresses her own privilege and how it helped her career, while also delving into the issue on a broader scale. There are other, arguably better documentaries that tackle white privilege, but Hello, Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea is still worth a watch. Watch on Netflix 8 Whose Streets?
Directed by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis,
Whose Streets? offers a close look at police brutality during the Ferguson protests in Ferguson, Missouri following the murder of Mike Brown. David Rooney of that the documentary “is an essential testament to the commitment of activists whose credo is “We have nothing to lose but our chains,” told in their own fervent voices.” The Hollywood Reporter wrote in his review Watch on Netflix 9 Explained
The Vox docuseries
Explained doesn’t focus on one subject. Instead, episodes tackle different social issue, from the racial and gender pay gap to cannabis legalization. Each episode is less than 20 minutes, and as such, can only offer a broad and brief overview of its subject. Still, Explained is a great entryway into a wide array of topics — watch enough of its mini-documentaries, and you’re sure to learn something new. Watch on Netflix 10 War Against Women War Against Women was shot over three years in 10 different countries, according to Doc Land Films. Subjects share their experiences of sexual assault as a “weapon of war,” from Bosnia to Uganda to the Democratic Republic of Congo. As captured by director, writer, and producer Hernán Zin, War Against Women explores the violence civilian women face in their war-torn homelands. Watch on Netflix 11 Knock Down the House Knock Down The House follows Democratic candidates Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush, and Paula Jean Swearengin during their 2018 election campaigns for congress. Most notably, the documentary shows Ocasio-Cortez’s rise to popularity as she wins both the primary and general election. Knock Down The House premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, just weeks after Ocasio-Cortez assumed office. Watch on Netflix 12 The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson 13 There’s Something in the Water
Though the United States has its fair share of issues, this documentary will remind viewers that the U.S. doesn’t have a monopoly on injustice. In
There’s Something in the Water, actor Elliot Page — in his directorial debut — follows Black and Indigenous Canadians in Nova Scotia living on deteriorated land and without basic essentials, like clean water. The documentary is based on Ingrid Waldron’s nonfiction book of the same name. Watch on Netflix 14 Heroin(e)
The opioid epidemic has disproportionately affected the town of Huntington, West Virginia, which has been referred to as the “overdose capital of America.”
Heroin(e) takes audiences into the conditions plaguing the small U.S. town, with a concise point of view. The short doc earned an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Short Subject in 2018. Watch on Netflix 15 Reversing Roe
The 1973 Supreme Court case
Roe v. Wade was a landmark decision for women and abortion rights, allowing people the right to choose without government interference. Reversing Roe looks at the history of abortion laws prior to the case, as well as the current abortion rights landscape. The documentary shows both sides of the issue, with The New York Times saying that the film is “less interested in rendering a verdict on the morality of abortion than it is in tracing the increasing politicization of the issue.” Watch on Netflix 16 Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich
This brief documentary series includes interviews from survivors of sexual abuse perpetrated by Jeffrey Epstein, the wealthy financier who was arrested and indicted in 2019, and subsequently died by suicide while in jail. According to
, the production team was extremely hush-hush about the entire project, working on secret servers to protect them against retaliation. Though it doesn’t add anything new to the Epstein conversation, it does provide a very thorough overview for those who aren’t already in the know. Filthy Rich director Lisa Bryant Watch on Netflix 17 Born in Gaza Born in Gaza is a short documentary that focuses on Palestinian children caught in the violence of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Upon its release in 2014, : “ The Hollywood Reporter praised the film’s timeliness Born in Gaza has a directness and clarity deriving from its apparent wish to straightforwardly celebrate the lives of these children whilst criticizing politicians’ attempts to destroy them.” Watch on Netflix 18 Immigration Nation Immigration Nation is a chilling docuseries that underlines the sharp rise of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) during the Trump administration. The series relies on real footage taken from 2017 to 2020, and shows the (often illegal) tactics used by ICE to deport undocumented people — which is probably why ICE tried to block its release last year. Watch on Netflix 19 Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj isn’t as much a documentary as it is a political talk show, but it does tackle subjects like immigration reform, cannabis legislation, fast fashion, mental health awareness, and Amazon’s impact on the U.S. economy. Minhaj, also a stand-up comic, intertwines humor and hard-hitting facts. Watch on Netflix 20 The Innocence Files The Innocence Files delves into wrongful convictions in the U.S. justice system, and the overall pitfalls of infrastructure currently in place. Oftentimes, as depicted in this docuseries, race plays a large part in erroneous imprisonment. Vox wrote that The Innocence Files is “among the strongest documentary series about criminal justice” for its “both for its depth of research and the almost unbelievable nature of what it reveals about the American justice system’s intransigence in reversing wrongful convictions, even when it’s plainly obvious that something went awry.” Watch on Netflix 21 I Am Not Your Negro I Am Not Your Negro is based on James Baldwin’s unfinished memoir Remember This House. It’s a sweeping documentary that examines and critiques racism against Black Americans in the United States, delving into the lives and activism of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, all of whom he knew personally. Samuel L. Jackson narrates. Watch on Netflix
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This article was originally published on
Feb. 8, 2017