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30 Best Documentaries On Netflix [October 2021]

When it comes to efficient means of escaping the real world, Netflix is hard to beat. Anytime reality seems too stressful or overwhelming, we can always count on the stalwart streaming service to offer us a distraction, a window into another world just beyond the screen where things make a little more sense (maybe because they're scripted that way).

Sometimes, though, instead of escaping the world, we want to learn more about it. As terrifying as life can be sometimes, it's also incredibly fascinating, and if you want to dive deeper into it rather than distract from it, Netflix has you covered in that event, too: There are dozens of documentaries on the streaming platform that offer us creative looks into sports, history, animals, culture, and of course, eccentric home zoo owners. If you're looking to get a novel glimpse of the world from the comfort of your couch, Netflix has something for everyone.

Updated on September 29, 2021: Netflix has an ever-evolving catalogue of films and shows, and we've updated this list to reflect the best documentaries currently offered by the streaming service. These picks will make you laugh, cry, learn, gasp, or cringe, depending on what you're looking for — and they'll accomplish it all with the most difficult cinematic device of all: the truth.

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond

In "Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond," we see Jim Carrey in what may be his greatest role yet: Himself. Well, more or less. This documentary tells the story of another film: 1999's "Man on the Moon," which features Jim Carrey's portrayal of performer Andy Kaufman. Carrey remained in character as the eccentric "song and dance man" throughout the shoot.

The story of that role is steeped in complex layers. Carrey was so committed to the portrayal of Kaufman that he ended up having trouble separating himself from the character — much like the line between Kaufman and his characters often seemed to blur. This documentary is a fantastically entertaining and convoluted portrait that tiptoes right up to the edge of madness.

Dogs

Dogs (the titular subjects of this Netflix documentary series, now in its second season) are man's best friend. But that relationship, as simple as it may seem, can take many forms in a wide and emotional variety of circumstances. "Dogs" attempts to not only capture as many of these special bonds as it can, but to celebrate them.

The Last Dance

The explosive documentary "The Last Dance" is actually about another form of athleticism: Basketball, and specifically, the 1997-1998 Chicago Bulls NBA team, led by Michael Jordan. But the miniseries goes beyond the game of basketball, offering a window into the lives, struggles, triumphs, and relationships of the men who led one of the greatest franchises in NBA history.

Brilliantly edited archive footage pairs with a compelling soundtrack and heartfelt present-day interviews to paint an unparalleled portrait of a larger-than-life legacy.

Explained

Netflix viewers love this series from the news site Vox, and its third season in July 2021 continues the show's tradition of answering some of the internet's most-asked (and rarer, lesser-asked, and all the more interesting) questions in witty, easily-digestible fashion. From designer DNA to K-pop, the racial wealth gap to cults, these episodes are an easy way to bone up on your general knowledge, better understand the world, or prepare for your next trivia night.

13th

Some of the documentaries on this list will illuminate fascinating tidbits from niche parts of the world, from the bottom of the ocean to the lives of dogs. But "13th" is different: It shows us a crucial history of racial inequality in the United States, an issue that, while of paramount importance in modern society, requires much more widespread, practical education.

It all adds up to a shocking window into the institutional disenfranchisement of communities that is held up by the way our society functions. If you've heard terms like "prison-industrial complex" lately and want to learn more about what they really mean, this is a great place to start.

The Movies That Made Us

After two well-loved seasons (one of which focused exclusively on holiday films), "The Movies That Made Us" is making another appearance. The third season — coming on October 12 — also focuses on some of the classic films, like "Jurassic Park," that have earned immortality in our culture. We quote them in conversation, watch them for comfort, and even use stills from their scenes to express our common humor through memes. These films have such a huge impact on the way we think, feel, connect, and live, and now we get an inside peek.

  • Director: Brian Volk-Weiss

  • Year: 2019 – current

  • Runtime: 10 episodes, 45-52 minutes each

  • Rating: TV-MA

  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 100%

My Octopus Teacher

When this stunning documentary hit Netflix, audiences were enraptured. And unlike a lot of the titles on this list, you can easily watch this one with your kids — with a rating of TV-G and saturated with magical underwater visuals, they're even likely to sit still for it. And that's despite the fact that the scope encompasses an entire year of Craig Foster's effort to cultivate a unique bond with a wild octopus.

I Am Not Your Negro

According to Metacritic, this film is not only one of the best documentaries on Netflix, but one of the best movies on Netflix, period. With captivating narration by Samuel L. Jackson and the moving words of James Baldwin, the film is a timeless exploration of race relations in America through the eyes of history's seminal civil rights leaders. Baldwin had close relationships with many of these men, from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Malcolm X. Their efforts and interactions are indispensable, mind-opening viewing.

Icarus

Did you ever have a dream of being an Olympic champion as a kid? A lot of people will go to just about any length for that dream. They'll put a family on hold, they'll skip years of high school or college, they'll spend months in grueling training and diet regimens. And that's just the stuff that's legal.

As you'll see in "Icarus," corruption runs rampant in the Olympics, which is supposed to be the height of athleticism and nobility. Sometimes, these evils are perpetrated at the very hands of those who are supposed to guard against it — and they'll do anything, to anyone, to maintain their clandestine advantage.

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness

"Tiger King" hit the small screen just as the world itself got much smaller: Lockdown measures forced people to stay inside for much of the spring and summer, at least. With so much free time, many turned to streaming services to cure the boredom. And the perfect antidote arrived at precisely the right time: The bizarre and sensational spectacle of Joe Exotic and his home zoo.

Social media grew saturated with memes and discussions of his insane antics: His rivalry with zoo owner Carole Baskin (who might have killed her husband?), his eccentric lifestyle, and his five husbands. Before long, Joe wasn't just king of the tigers — he was ostensibly king of the pop culture world.

  • Directors: Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin

  • Year: 2020

  • Runtime: 7 episodes, 41-48 minutes each

  • Rating: TV-MA

  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 85%

Athlete A

The documentary "Athlete A" is crucial but difficult viewing, and must come with a trigger warning for audiences based on topics of trauma and sexual assault. The film lifts the voices of members of the USA Gymnastics national team, who survived abuse at the hands of someone who was supposed to take care of them: former team doctor Larry Nassar. Not only does the film indict Nassar, but the often toxic culture that allowed these abuses to persist.

Wild Wild Country

Critics have said "Wild Wild Country" is as mesmerizing as its subject, the controversial guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who led a community of followers as their spiritual leader. This is something of an obscure piece of American history, and certainly a bizarre one. If you like to learn about cults and their uncanny ability to blur the lines between reality and fiction, good and evil, you'll be enthralled by this expose.

  • Director: Maclain Way and Chapman Way

  • Year: 2018

  • Runtime: 6 episodes, 68-71 minutes each

  • Rating: TV-MA

  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%

Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich

If you were alarmed by "Dirty Money," you'll be rightfully appalled by "Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich," which takes corruption and evil to new and horrific levels. There is, of course, a trigger warning for this content, which deals with the abusive acts perpetrated by Epstein and his powerful cohort against vulnerable and underage girls.

The documentary does an excellent job not only of putting together the pieces that reveal the ugly truth, but of illuminating the lasting impact on survivors as they struggle for justice and closure.

David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet

It would be all too easy to fall asleep to this documentary, narrated by the soothing voice of David Attenborough, if the focal point of the movie weren't the dire existential crisis facing our planet. Though the visuals of our beautiful Earth are as dreamy as they come, the concerns Attenborough raises in this film will certainly keep you up at night.

  • Directors: Alastair Fothergill, Jonathan Hughes, Keith Scholey

  • Year: 2020

  • Runtime: 83 minutes

  • Rating: PG

  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%

Fyre

In a documentary that apparently eked out a win over Hulu's piece on the same subject matter, 2019's "Fyre" details "The Greatest Party That Never Happened." We're talking, of course, about the infamous Fyre Festival, falsely marketed as a luxury music festival in 2017 only to collapse into chaos due to poor planning and outright fraud. Instead of "luxury villas," there were FEMA tents. Instead of gourmet meals, attendees got boxed cheese sandwiches.

Despite promotion by various celebrities on social media (maybe the organizers should have used the money they paid these influencers to pay for the actual event instead), the event was a disaster — but one that is an equally entertaining and horrifying lesson in the perils of extravagant wealth.

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution

There are two astounding documentaries on Netflix produced by Barack and Michelle Obama's production company, Higher Ground Productions. The first, "American Factory," is also incredibly worth watching — but "Crip Camp," the second, is a heartfelt and nearly perfect window into Camp Jened, a camp for teens with disabilities. The documentary, and the campers themselves, have come to be key influences in the disability rights movement, and the film is an insightful, touching look into a group of people who made the world a truly better place.

Making a Murderer

This documentary was an instant sensation and has tugged at the public imagination ever since. The story of Steven Avery in "Making a Murderer" begins with a wrongful conviction and 18-year prison sentence, from which he was released only to be accused, tried, and convicted of murder again just a few years later.

Both cases are seemingly rife with bias and dishonesty on the part of law enforcement and legal counsel, and we're left with the possibility that Avery was a convenient scapegoat for something far more sinister –or at the very least, suffered a violation of his rights. The documentary is a bizarre, infuriating, bewildering ride that raises questions that should have been asked during the original events.

  • Director: Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos

  • Year: 2015 – 2018

  • Runtime: 20 episodes, 47-77 minutes each

  • Rating: TV-14

  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 84%

Pray Away

Often one of the hardest things to do as a member of the LGBTQ+ community is to accept yourself for who you are and find support in those who accept you as well. Sadly, the "ex-gay movement" that took off in the 1970s, led by a group known as Exodus International, sought to actively undo countless gay individuals' self-affirming journeys into their true identities.

Exodus International used prayer and conversion therapy to "free" individuals from the queer community. However, as the documentary "Pray Away" makes clear, through interviews with former participants and the leaders of the movement itself, this "freedom" was really abuse. "Pray Away" details a dark chapter in the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights and serves as a reminder that the battle against discrimination is far from over.

Fantastic Fungi

Narrated by Brie Larsen, "Fantastic Fungi" is full of breathtaking visuals and mood-making music that are so captivating that you'll forget you're actually learning something! But you are, and the knowledge may just change how you think about your place in the universe and the harmony of the natural world. At the very least, you'll learn some really cool fungus facts for your next trivia night. (Did you know that the largest organism in the world is a fungus, or that slime molds are just as good as humans at designing metropolitan rail systems?)

Untold

The stars of the sports world can sometimes seem larger than life, almost superhuman. But there's more to the stories of these athletes and teams than meets the eye (or is portrayed in the media).

"Untold" reaches behind the scenes in weekly stand-alone documentary films to tell tales unheard by even the most avid sports fans. We get a window into the notorious brawl at a 2004 Pacers-Pistons game, the rise of Christy Martin in the boxing world as she battled personal demons and even a threat on her life, and a rag-tag hockey team run by the teenage son of a mobster, among other stories.

Misha and the Wolves

The story behind "Misha and the Wolves" is almost too insane to believe — and that's what makes for such fascinating viewing. The documentary takes turns sympathetically exploring Misha Defonseca's story of surviving the Holocaust by escaping the Nazis and living with the wolves, then raising valid points of skepticism about the wild narrative and the darker truth at the heart of the story.

This push and pull creates twists that keep you interested as more and more of Misha's outlandish story is revealed. As she herself says, if she'd made it up, who would believe her? Will you?

Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal, & Greed

If you don't play Bob Ross videos in the background while you're doing homework or when you just need some good, soothing vibes, you're really missing out. The late painter hosted an art instruction program on PBS, entitled "The Joy of Painting," for 11 years beginning in 1983, but Ross' videos and personality have helped generations find joy in so much more than painting.

But few people know the sordid history of betrayal and greed behind Ross' business empire — perpetrated by some of the partners he trusted most and persisting even after his death.

John of God: The Crimes of a Spiritual Healer

A lot of people think that psychics and mediums are scam artists. But usually, the worst thing they'll do is overcharge you to tell you something you already know about yourself — you're never in any physical danger.

That wasn't the case for the followers of John of God, the name by which widely revered medium João Teixeira de Faria was known. After he achieved worldwide renown, survivors came forward, with the help of the media and the law, to reveal the horrendous abuse they'd suffered at the hands of this "spiritual healer."

Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space

In the days of Apollo 11 — the first manned spacecraft to land on the moon — there was no internet. The moon landing in July 1969 was transmitted through radio and television stations, just a few months after Apollo 10 orchestrated the first live and in-color broadcast from space. Today, we can see all kinds of cosmic shenanigans from the comfort of our phone screens. But "Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space" is more than a live broadcast. It's an all-access pass to the first orbital flight manned exclusively by civilians. And it happens almost in real time, leading up to and following the September 15 launch.

Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali

Two legendary names in history and powerful Black leaders in America, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali met by chance and formed a deep bond that impacted both their personal lives and their legacies. This bond ultimately met a tragic and abrupt end, but neither the friendship itself nor its final fate are widely understood. But "Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali" features never-before-seen footage and seeks to explore the powerful influence these men had on the world and each other, as well as the ever-pertinent messages they carried with them.

My Heroes Were Cowboys

Do you have a comfort movie or TV show? Something you watch when you're sick or lonely or just feeling down? Robin Wiltshire did. During a difficult childhood, Western movies were a source of solace. Now, as an immigrant living in the American Southwest, he finds himself on the frontier of healing. His love of Westerns led him to the art of horse training, and he's been able to find meaning and mend old wounds in the environment that, to him, always truly felt like home.

An Inconvenient Truth

Al Gore has been many things. He was a vice president and a U.S. presidential candidate. He was an activist. And of course, he was a meme before there were memes. "Al Gore invented the internet" was a sardonic phrase circulated in the early 2000s that mocked the former vice president for an out-of-context quote in which he appeared to take credit for the world wide web. He's also famous for the contested 2000 presidential election.

But out of all these roles, Gore's activism had one of the biggest impacts on the mindset of the average global citizen. Covering his efforts to warn the public about climate change, "An Inconvenient Truth" is probably the only film based on a slide show to win multiple Oscars and, arguably more impressively, actually change people's minds.

Ella Fitzgerald: Just One Of Those Things

One of the most recognizable faces (and voices) in the American music industry, Ella Fitzgerald was an unparalleled jazz singer who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for a "vocal range [that] stretches across oceans and political boundaries."

The documentary about the singer's life, "Ella Fitzgerald: Just One Of Those Things," is more than just a filmic experience: It's a musical one. It moves through Ella's triumphs in her imperfect life to the tune of her perfect voice — a treat for all who watch or listen.

Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It

How do you fit more than seven decades into a 90-minute documentary? It would be hard enough if Rita Moreno's talents were confined to one industry. But as one of precious few EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony) winners (and the first Latina to achieve the honor), Moreno's long and storied career spans not just generations but industries (TV, music, film, and theater, respectively).

We get a pretty comprehensive picture of the star in "Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It," focusing in particular on her childhood and early life. It's a glimpse of her as we've never seen her before — which is saying something about such a versatile performer who starred in everything from the original "West Side Story" to "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks

The organization may deal in secrets, but it seems that WikiLeaks is never far from the public eye. The controversial battle between the right to privacy and the right to information has captivated public attention for years as digital technology continues to evolve. And the documentary "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks" is a deep dive into Julian Assange's news leak organization and the individuals and information at play in the world of secrets, corruption, and whistleblowers.