They say that truth is stranger than fiction. Nothing proves that saying better than a good documentary. No one knows that better than Netflix, which now offers a broad menu of intriguing docs among its thousands of other streaming options. But how to find the right ones worth your time? Look no further: These are the 15 best documentaries streaming right now on Netflix. Class is in session.
Director Ava DuVernay made a blistering debut behind the camera with 2014’s Selma, a powerful account of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s campaign to secure equal voting rights via his epic march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. But she made good on that promise with this Oscar-nominated follow-up about the Thirteenth Amendment, which intended to abolish involuntary servitude. DuVernay focuses on how America’s prison system has become, in a sense, a new form of slavery in which Black inmates are disproportionately put away for small crimes, exposing another of our nation’s injustices with the same force and fury of her story about MLK.
Watch it: 13th
Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed (2021)
If you watched PBS in the 1980s, then you couldn’t avoid Bob Ross — the frizzy-haired ex-hippie who taught viewers how to paint tranquil landscapes with happy little trees on The Joy of Painting. His message was simple: There is the soul of an artist trapped inside of each and every one of us. But beneath Ross’s calm façade, not everything was as serene as it seemed. We know what you’re thinking, but no, Ross was not a bad guy who did terrible things. Rather, the “betrayal” and “greed” of the title refer to what happened with his allegedly shady business partners who tried to keep profiting from his name and upbeat persona after Ross passed away from cancer in 1995.
Crip Camp (2020)
In the Catskills back in the early 1970s, there was a summer camp for disabled teens called Camp Jened. James LeBrecht, who directed this inspiring, heartwarming film, was one of those campers whose lives were changed by the place. Documenting an era before rights for disabled people were enacted, Crip Camp beautifully combines archival footage from those years and more recent interview segments with now-grownup former campers that show one of this summer paradise’s unintended legacies: creating an entire generation of activists who fought for recognition they never should have had to fight for in the first place.
Watch it: Crip Camp
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Fantastic Fungi (2019)
It’s safe to say that most of us haven’t given much thought to the lowly fungus beyond the few different varieties of mushrooms we might toss in our cart at the supermarket. So you may wonder why on earth would I want to spend 80 minutes watching a documentary about nothing but fungi? I’ll tell you why: Like the title says, they’re fantastic. Did you know, for instance, that there are more than 1.5 million species of fungi? Clearly, mushrooms are the glamor fungus here, but this fascinating nature deep dive is a visual feast of trippy time-lapse photography and wonderfully obscure factoids (fungi help clear oil spills and help trees communicate) that will make you look at your next mushroom omelet in an entirely new light.
Watch it: Fantastic Fungi
Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (2019)
How much would you pay to get a selfie with a supermodel at an exclusive music festival on a private island in the Bahamas? This bizarre cautionary tale about fame, hubris, and the gullibility of the social media generation answers that question with deadpan gallows humor. With amazing access to Fyre Festival mastermind Billy McFarland, who happily perpetrates his fraud for the cameras, Fyre chronicles how this swindle was a mess from its overhyped beginning to its chaotic end as concertgoers showed up in the Caribbean and were treated to refugee-camp tents instead of posh resort suites as well as cold cheese sandwiches instead of five-star meals. Fascinating proof that there’s still a sucker born every minute.
I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
Raoul Peck’s portrait of author and intellectual James Baldwin is essential viewing. On its surface, it’s a film about the complex life of one of our greatest thinkers, Black or otherwise. On another, its footage from the 1960s and ’70s feels just as timely in 2021. So much has changed; so little has changed. Narrated by an understated Samuel L. Jackson, the film serves up clips of the debonair Baldwin delivering withering critiques and witty bon mots. In one of the most poignant passages, the author writes: “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. ... It is not a pretty story.” It’s a pithy line, poetic even. But it also stings and leaves a welt.
Watch it: I Am Not Your Negro
Inventing David Geffen (2012)
In the 1970s, David Geffen became the ultimate showbiz power broker built on equal parts charisma, smarts and threat-barking bluster. The son of Brooklyn Jewish immigrants who quickly rose up the entertainment ladder, Geffen’s story parallels the rise of the counterculture: first as a hip, young super agent (he helped to shape the careers of Joni Mitchell, the Eagles, and Crosby, Stills and Nash); then a manager and record label owner; and finally a movie studio head with DreamWorks. If you were his friend, no one was more in your camp; if you were his enemy, god help you. This bio-doc covers the entire sweep of Geffen’s career, warts and all, leaving the impression that when it comes to Hollywood rainmakers, for better or worse they just don’t make them like this anymore.
Watch it: Inventing David Geffen
The Last Dance (2020)
Even if you don’t agree that Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player of all time (and if so, are you nuts?), this 10-part insider docuseries on His Airness’s final season with the Chicago Bulls is a sports junkie’s dream. During their ’90s run when they won six NBA titles, the Bulls cut their way through the rest of the league like a hot knife through butter. Jordan is on hand, as are his teammates, to look back on the trials they faced during their valedictory lap and provide a unique glimpse at what drove the legend on and off the court. I know that 10 episodes sounds like a substantial time commitment, but this one breezes by as quickly as the final seconds of overtime.
Watch it: The Last Dance
Life in Color (2021)
Netflix has several great nature documentaries on its menu, but the best are the ones narrated by the dulcet British tones of David Attenborough. Life in Color is his most recent survey of the natural world, and it’s a three-part series that hopscotches across the planet investigating how animals blend in with their surroundings for survival. As with most Attenborough shows, a big part of the experience is just being transported by his gentle voice and informative sense of wonder. But here we also get to see the world the way that the animals themselves see it, which, in turn, makes us really see them as if for the first time.
Watch it: Life in Color
Misha and the Wolves (2021)
When she was 7 years old, a Holocaust survivor named Misha Defonseca walked thousands of miles through Nazi-occupied countries desperately looking for her parents. During her arduous journey, she befriended a pack of wolves. It made for an amazing tale of resilience and determination. Disney and Oprah both courted her. But then Misha’s story slowly began to unravel as it became clear that the whole thing was a fabrication. Was she a victim or a villain? Or both? Misha and the Wolves weaves a doozy of a tale told by the ultimate unreliable narrator, making us all question our own thirst for uplifting stories.
Watch it: Misha and the Wolves
My Octopus Teacher (2020)
Even if you’re not necessarily a sucker for nature shows, My Octopus Teacher may change your mind. This popular winner of the 2020 Best Documentary Oscar follows a snorkeler named Craig Foster on his oddball journey to develop a connection — more than that ... a relationship! — with an octopus in the kelp beds off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. Utterly unique and more than a little strange, this philosophical film attempts to show how much like humans these underwater alien-looking creatures are. The underwater photography is gorgeous and — if you allow yourself to give in to Foster’s slightly daffy charm — you’ll be won over.
Watch it: My Octopus Teacher
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005)
There are actually two great Bob Dylan documentaries currently on Netflix. Both are directed by Martin Scorsese, so you know they’re good. The first is the Rolling Thunder Revue about the musician’s barnstorming, special guest-laden tour in the mid-’70s. The second is this expansive, three-and-a-half hour overview of Dylan’s remarkable career from the folkie coffeehouses of Greenwich Village in the early 1960s to his electric rock ’n’ roll conversion and beyond. The archival clips are great, but the fresh interviews with Dylan are unusually insightful for a reluctant artist who, at times, tends to speak in riddles. You can’t go wrong with either film. In fact, why not go for a double feature?
Watch it: No Direction Home: Bob Dylan
Studio 54: The Documentary (2018)
Considering the brief lifespan of this infamous New York nightclub mecca, it’s remarkable how much of an impact it had on the popular imagination. With the rise of disco in the hedonistic, coke-fueled Me Decade of the ’70s and the simultaneous celebrification of mass culture, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager’s anything-goes Caligulan party palace was the place to be if you were Liza, Andy, Bianca, Mick, Truman, Farrah, Halston or any of the one-name fabulous people who could whisk right past the velvet rope. Studio 54 captures the sequined swirl of the era with well-curated footage, and Schrager finally opens up about how the whole thing came tumbling down. It’s a giddy time capsule of a time when the party seemed like it would never stop.
Watch it: Studio 54: The Documentary
Tell Me Who I Am (2019)
Here is one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction stories that documentary filmmaking shines at telling. Tell Me Who I Am unspools the heartbreaking story of Alex Lewis, who at age 18 had an accident that put him in a coma and wiped his memory as clean as a slate. When he woke up, the only thing he knew was his twin brother Marcus — who was sitting at his bedside. Alex didn’t even know his own name. Marcus filled his brother in on his past, but he omitted the more tragic chapters and created a sunnier, alternate biography. Years later, Marcus reveals the parts he left out. The two men attempt to grapple with whether ignorance is bliss or a cop-out.
Watch it: Tell Me Who I Am
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (2018)
In November 2018, Netflix served up a pair of early Christmas presents to Orson Welles buffs. The main event was the release of the Citizen Kane director’s final, decades-in-the-works film, The Other Side of the Wind. Receiving less attention was this insightful documentary piecing together the stop-start-stop-start production of his cinematic swan song. Interviews with the director’s friends and enemies — often one in the same — provide insight into Welles’s one-of-a-kind career, the ins and outs of how the film became a drawn-out punchline, and ultimately how sometimes an artist’s art can still remain a living thing even after his death.
Watch it: They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead
Chris Nashawaty, former film critic for Entertainment Weekly, is the author of Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story and a contributor to Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.