Entertainment

18 Best Documentaries To Watch On Netflix To Make You Feel Smarter

Add docs like Disclosure, Becoming, and My Octopus Teacher to your watch list.

Promo art for Netflix's 'Disclosure' documentary.
Netflix
Updated: 
Originally Published: 

With so many choices on Netflix — like empowering female-led movies, nostalgic ’90s films, wholesome family flicks, shows for indecisive couples, and funny dirty films — it can be hard to actually decide what to watch. When we’re not sure, we sometimes end up scrolling through Netflix’s documentaries section, where you’ll find social justice docs, chilling docs, music docs, and scary docs. Some of our favorites are the ones that really get us thinking — the incredibly intelligent documentaries on Netflix that will inadvertently send us down a million Wikipedia rabbit holes, helping us come out as a more informed citizen.

Documentary filmmaking is one of the most remarkable challenges in all of entertainment. Creators must take reality and mold it into an engaging story all through the use of interviews and painstaking research. While it might not be possible to ever remain truly objective in the art one creates, there is an understood obligation within the documentary genre that they must be grounded in hard truths and offer an unflinching look at the world around us at any point in time.

With scopes that range from the obscure and niche to the enormous and planet-altering, documentaries are one of the greatest tools to change your view on the world. This list of the most fascinating Netflix documentaries will ensure that your brain always has something new to chew on. Bookmark this post because we’ll be updating it regularly when similar docs hit Netflix.

1

13th (2016)

Directed, written, and produced by the incredible Ava Duvernay, the Oscar-nominated documentary 13th offers an unflinching look at the history of racial inequality in America from the end of the Civil War all the way to present day. The documentary gets its name from the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which abolishes slavery. However, there is a loophole; that right is revoked once someone is convicted of a crime. 13th delves into the the efficacy of the criminal justice system in America, highlighting how mass incarceration and unfair criminalization of black Americans continues to strip away their freedoms to this day. Utilizing archival footage, animation, and interviews with prominent political figures including Angela Davis, 13th is a powerful documentary that will move you to action.

2

Audrey (2020)

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the name Audrey Hepburn? Is it the black dress and pearl necklace of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Or the limitless sense of adventure and youthful zeal of Princess Ann in Roman Holiday? While Hepburn might be looked upon as the “ultimate beauty icon,” her 2020 documentary Audrey seeks to shed light on the many other sides of the humanitarian’s life. That includes her dream of being a ballet dancer, her prolific film career, and her work as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador all the way until her death in 1993.

3

The Social Dilemma (2020)

Directed by Jeff Orlowski, The Social Dilemma explores the rise of social media and the lasting effects it has. Featuring interviews with former employees of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and more, the 2020 documentary explores internet addiction and how websites are designed to keep audiences scrolling for hours at a time. It also delves into how the internet has become a powerful tool in surveillance and the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories. While it might be a great way to keep in touch with relatives, the film also pinpoints the negative effect on mental health it’s had for younger generations, especially teens, who find themselves online more than ever before. This is a documentary you don’t want to miss out on, but don’t just take our word for it; Rainn Wilson, George R. R. Martin, and Chris Redd have also recommended the film too.

4

Chasing Coral (2017)

Also directed by Jeff Orlowski, the 2017 nature documentary Chasing Coral centers on a hard-working team of divers, scientists, and photographers who work to chronicle the rapid and devastating effect of climate change on coral reefs. Using time-lapse photography, viewers are able to physically witness as some of the most beautiful and vibrant coral reefs around the world become smaller, duller, and eventually die out with the passage of time. If you enjoy this documentary, then make sure to check out Orlowski’s 2012 companion film Chasing Ice too.

5

What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)

What Happened, Miss Simone? expertly weaves a tale of music journalism and civil rights history together all set to the tune of Nina Simone’s awe-inspiring discography. The 2015 documentary tells the story of the brilliant singer, pianist, and activist Nina Simone, from her early childhood years playing the piano in North Carolina all the way to her release of powerful anthems like “Mississippi Goddam” and “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” and her lasting legacy after her death in 2003.

6

Studio 54: The Documentary (2018)

In the late ’70s, Studio 54 was the place to be. The lavish New York nightclub might’ve only been open from 1977 to 1980, but it will be forever remembered for its high-profile guests like Elton John, Cher, Rick James, Halston, and Elizabeth Taylor, its unforgettable entrances (including Bianca Jagger riding a horse to her birthday bash), and its rollicking parties that never stopped until morning light. Its eponymous 2018 documentary sheds a light on all of the glitz, glamour, and greed that shaped the legendary club’s history.

7

Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen (2020)

Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen is a deep dive into how Hollywood’s portrayal of transgender characters in film and television has shaped America’s perception of the trans community. The 2020 documentary features candid conversations with prominent transgender activists and stars, including Laverne Cox, Brian Michael Smith, Jamie Clayton, and more about the importance of seeing positive representation onscreen. It also takes audiences on a trip through transgender representation in film history, highlighting both the positive and negative examples of characters throughout the years.

8

The Devil Next Door (2019)

The Devil Next Door tells the story of John Demjanjuk, a retired Ukranian-American mechanic who was accused of being “Ivan The Terrible,” an infamously cruel guard at the Treblinka extermination camp in World War II, in the 1980s. The 2019 documentary follows Demjanjuk’s highly-publicized first trial in Israel. Although his initial conviction was overturned, Demjanjuk was revealed to be a Nazi guard at the Sobibor extermination camp and was subsequently tried and charged with 28,060 counts of accessory to murder in Germany. The documentary features power testimonies from Holocaust survivors as well as interviews with Demjanjuk’s lawyer and family.

9

My Octopus Teacher (2020)

We can learn a lot about life from our friends. The 2020 Academy Award-winning documentary My Octopus Teacher sets its sights on one particularly peculiar friendship between South African filmmaker Craig Foster and an octopus in a kelp forest near Cape Town. Set over the course of almost an entire year, the unlikely pair form a close bond with one another as Foster learns firsthand the importance of getting to know the world around him.

10

Becoming (2020)

Receiving its namesake from Michelle Obama’s 2018 best-selling novel, the 2020 documentary Becoming follows the former First Lady of the United States as she embarks on her book tour across 34 cities. Along the way, she sits down for powerful conversations at community events and imparts messages she’s learned from her own life about hope, kindness, and finding one’s self.

11

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)

As its title suggests, the 2017 documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson sheds light on the life of Marsha P. Johnson, a black, transgender LGBTQIA+ activist who was a key figure in the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village that sparked the gay rights movement. In 1992, Johnson was found dead in the Hudson River, and despite the suspicious circumstances surrounding it, her death was ruled a suicide. Over two decades later, Victoria Cruz, an investigator at the New York City Anti-Violence Project, attempts to find justice for Johnson.

12

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (2020)

Welcome to Camp Jened, a 1970s summer camp based in Hunter, New York, that was specifically designed for teenagers with disabilities. The camp was not only a place that encouraged teenagers with disabilities to be themselves, but was also a cultural catalyst for its attendees who later found themselves reuniting with one another at the frontline of the disability rights movement in America. Executive produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2021 Academy Awards.

13

Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (2019)

Who can forget the trainwreck of epic proportions that was the Fyre Festival? Set on an exclusive island, the 2017 festival was set to be the sold-out event of the summer co-organized by Ja Rule with an impressive roster of artists. In actuality, the disaster featured minimal food and water, not enough lodging, and culminated in one of its organizers, Billy McFarland, being jailed for six years. The 2019 documentary highlights what really went wrong with behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with former employees.

14

Reversing Roe (2018)

This insightful 2018 documentary provides a thorough history of the Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade. The landmark decision, which was decided upon in 1973, made it a woman’s constitutional right to choose to terminate a pregnancy without government restriction. Since the decision was made, multiple states across the U.S. have passed laws and regulation that try and subvert and stymie a woman’s access to their own medical care. Reversing Roe explores the current landscape of women’s rights in America with unflinching honesty.

15

Five Came Back (2017)

Five Came Back tells the story of five prolific filmmakers — John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens — who each served during World War II. Their film careers are then expanded upon by iconic directors Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greengrass, Lawrence Kasden, and Steven Spielberg. And, if that’s not enough reason to watch, it’s also narrated by Meryl Streep. Five Came Back offers a unique glimpse into the lives of these legendary creators and how Hollywood films changed America’s perception of war.

16

A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story (2020)

Netflix

If you enjoy living life in the fast lane, then you need to check out A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story. The 2020 documentary tells the tale of Argentine race car driver Juan Manuel Fangio, who is widely regarded as one of the best drivers of all time. Nicknamed the “Godfather of Formula One,” Fangio raced during the 1950s and won the World Championship on five separate occasions — all of which he completed without a majority of the safety precautions used today.

17

Athlete A (2020)

Athlete A shines a spotlight on one of the biggest horrors in recent sports history: Larry Nassar’s sexual assault of more than 250 young women while he was a doctor for Team USA Gymnastics. While he is currently serving between 40 and 175 years in prison, the 2020 documentary tells the story of how investigative reporters at The Indianapolis Star, gymnasts, Olympians, and parents all joined forces to see Nassar convicted for his crimes and, in the process, unveiled a history of abuse and power imbalances within USA Gymnastics.

18

Black Holes: The Edge of All We Know (2020)

Netflix

Black holes are one of the universe’s greatest mysteries. The 2020 documentary, Black Holes: The Edge of All We Know, hopes to expand our knowledge of the cosmos just a little bit more. The documentary tells two equally compelling stories interwoven together; one follows Stephen Hawking’s quest to understand black holes, while the other centers on a group of scientists’ journey to take the first-ever photo of a black hole, which was revealed via livestream in 2019.