Documentaries are one of the hottest genres on Netflix, so it can be tough to wade through the sheer number of options to find something to watch. Here are 10 of the best documentaries to stream on Netflix right now.
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The American factory in American Factory is not entirely American, and the movie is built around the tension between two cultures that collide in an Ohio town. Years after the shutdown of a General Motors plant, Chinese auto-glass company Fuyao takes over the former facility, bringing jobs back to a depressed area.
But Fuyao also attempts to bring in Chinese workplace values, which clash with American individualism (and safety regulations). The Oscar-winning film presents the conflict without passing judgment on either side, merely observing the wheels of capitalism in motion.
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A sort of B-side itself from famed documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography is a low-key character study of photographer Elsa Dorfman. The affable Dorfman made her name with a specific kind of portrait, on a very rare large-format Polaroid film. Morris shows Dorfman at work, explores her connections to major figures in the art world, and examines how she finds artistic merit in a style (the individual studio portrait) that’s rarely given serious consideration.
Filmmaker Kitty Green takes an impressionistic approach to examining the notorious 1996 murder of six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey in Casting JonBenet. Instead of interviewing experts or investigators, Green puts together a casting session for a theoretical movie about the case.
She brings in locals from Ramsey’s Colorado community and asks for their opinions on the real people they’re “auditioning” to play. The result is as much a rumination on subjective truth and manufactured scandal as it is a true-crime documentary with a brilliantly self-referential finale.
Subtitled A Disability Revolution, Nicole Newnham and James LeBrecht’s Crip Camp draws a straight line from an inclusive summer camp for disabled kids in the 1970s to the political movement that resulted in major civil rights legislation in the following two decades.
The movie shows how valuable it was for kids with disabilities to have a welcoming and supportive place to go at a time when they were often shunned and hidden away. And it shows how that feeling of acceptance and empowerment inspired those kids to continue fighting for respect as adults.
Filmmaker Kristen Johnson confronts mortality head-on in Dick Johnson Is Dead. As her father Dick’s health declines and he moves in with her and her kids, Johnson copes with her feelings by making a movie about them. Rather than being morbid or maudlin, the film is a celebration of life, with a playful approach to the inevitability of death.
Johnson creates over-the-top scenarios to depict her father’s potential death onscreen, and he amiably agrees to star in them. Through the artistic process, father and daughter come to terms with what the future might hold.
In I Am Not Your Negro, filmmaker Raoul Peck adapts an unfinished book by author and activist James Baldwin, using it as a springboard for an essay film about Baldwin and race relations in America. Rather than offering a biography of Baldwin, Peck offers an exploration of Baldwin’s ideas through the lens of other Black activists of the 1960s whose lives were cut short, including Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers.
Samuel L. Jackson narrates, giving Baldwin’s words fiery passion, but it’s the archival footage of Baldwin himself that is the most powerful.
Werner Herzog brings his typical dark, dispassionate viewpoint on nature to the volcano documentary Into the Inferno. Joined by volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, Herzog travels to the sites of a number of active volcanoes around the world, exploring their power, origins, impact, and cultural representations. As always, Herzog’s awe over the mysterious power of nature comes across in his wry narration, and he provides existential musings alongside educational information and gorgeous imagery.
While the first crop of astronauts were being trained for the U.S. space program in the 1960s, a parallel group of would-be astronauts underwent their own training. Mercury 13 tells the story of those aspiring astronauts, 13 women who took on training just as rigorous as the official regimen but were nevertheless denied the chance to travel to space because they weren’t men. The documentary shines a light on unsung heroes of the space program and examines their substantial legacy.
For a certain generation, He-Man was far more than just a goofy action figure. Directors Robert McCallum and Randall Lobb delve into the surprisingly fascinating development of the musclebound cartoon character and his enemies and allies in Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. McCallum and Lobb interview everyone from toy designers to TV producers to movie stars to cover the enduring appeal of He-Man and the world of Eternia.
When she was a teenager, Sandi Tan made a feature film called Shirkers with some of her friends in Singapore, guided by their teacher and filmmaking mentor. More than 20 years later, Tan made a documentary called Shirkers, tracking down what happened to that unfinished previous film, and relating how her teacher scammed a group of teenagers and disappeared with the footage they created.
It’s a fascinating look at the creative process, along with the kind of unfolding mystery that draws in viewers to so many Netflix documentaries.
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