Netflix has become documentary-lovers’ go-to platform for non-fictional content over the past year, with successes like Cheer and Michelle Obama’s Becoming arriving on the site.
With the world in its current state, it’s unsurprising that real life can often be wilder, darker and more engrossing than some of the most outlandish dramas you find on TV – just look at Tiger King, the plot of which sounds like it was taken from that of a far-fetched slapstick comedy.
The platform has a range of real-life docuseries for you to pick, from deeper looks at sport (The Last Dance) and environmental expeditions (Our Planet), to captivating retellings of open criminal cases in Unsolved Mysteries.
There are a number of important educational films on Netflix as well – Ava DuVernay’s 13th is an impactful examination of institutionalised racism within the American prison system, while Disclosure looks at transgender representation in the TV and film industry.
Check out our full guide to the best documentaries currently available on Netflix.
Netflix’s reboot of the iconic true-crime docuseries, Unsolved Mysteries, has proved to be immensely popular with subscribers, who have taken it upon themselves to find an answer to these open criminal cases.
The six episodes available on the platform look at completely different unsolved cases by identifying potential suspects and interviewing friends and family of the deceased.
From the “unexplained” rooftop death of Rey Rivera and killing of an entire family in France, to the disappearance of a hairdresser in broad daylight and a UFO sighting – every episode of Unsolved Mysteries brings out the amateur detectives amongst viewers and encourages people to come forward with potential leads.
If you thought cheerleading was a light-weight, frivolous activity, this six-part docuseries is looking to prove you wrong.
Cheer follows the Navarro College Bulldogs Cheer Team in Texas, a nationally ranked cheerleading squad, as they prepare for the National Cheerleading Championship held in Florida. The series looks at the lives of individual cheerleaders, the dedication required to become the best squad in the country and how physically and emotionally intense the competition can get.
Watching the team shed blood, sweat and tears to make it to the Championship Finals makes for engrossing and educational television – well worth the watch if you’re a fan of sporting documentaries.
Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich
Netflix’s hit four-part docu-series Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich brings to life the stories that made newspaper headlines last year when financier Jeffrey Epstein died in prison while facing charges of sex trafficking.
But what sets this true-crime series aside from many others is that it prioritises the survivors rather than the perpetrator.
Using footage of Epstein being interviewed for an earlier charge (and disdainfully refusing to answer questions) alongside comments from prosecutors, associates and investigators, plus film of Epstein’s homes (including his private island in the Caribbean), director Lisa Bryant’s documentary is a fascinating and horrifying look at how one man escaped justice for decades, possibly with the help of wealthy connections.
The Last Dance
You don’t have to be a b-ball fan to get into The Last Dance, but for those who are, you will get to see a whole new side to the legend and man they called “Air.”
In the fall of 1997, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls began their quest to win a sixth NBA title in eight years. But despite all Jordan had achieved since his sensational debut 13 years earlier, “The Last Dance,” as coach Phil Jackson called it, would be shadowed by tension with the club’s front office and the overwhelming sense that this was the last time the world would ever see the greatest player of all time, and his extraordinary teammates, in full flight.
Reportedly over taking Tiger King as the most in-demand documentary, the 10-part series charts the Chicago Bulls’ 1997/98 season with never-seen-before footage and interviews with Michael Jordan and some of his closest friends and enemies.
The joint ESPN/Netflix production dives deep into what makes one of the biggest icons of the 20th Century tick: the feuds, the fights with front office, and the family stories.
If you loved Michelle Obama’s book, then this documentary is right up your street! And even if you haven’t you should watch this anyway because she’s truly amazing as this film shows.
Becoming gives us an intimate look at the life of the former FLOTUS, as she embarks on a 34-city tour.
It highlights the power of community to bridge our divides and the spirit of connection that comes when we openly and honestly share our stories.
Offering a rare and up-close look at her life, we get to see Mrs Obama in ways we’ve never seen before. You’ll learn all about how she came to be the First Lady – and her extensive academic career before deciding to stand by her husband’s side and mentor him (yes, she did that!) – as well as the media scrutiny she faced during the eight years they served in the White House.
Netflix’s new documentary Disclosure is perfectly timed. The Pride Month viewing details the history of transgender representation in film and TV.
Get ready to confront society’s unexamined assumptions, as this series doesn’t mince its words. The eye-opening film traces a history that is at once dehumanizing, yet also evolving, complex, and sometimes humorous.
With the help of leading trans thinkers and creatives, including Laverne Cox, Lilly Wachowski, Yance Ford, MJ Rodriguez, Jamie Clayton, and Chaz Bono, reveals how Hollywood simultaneously reflects and manufactures our deepest anxieties about gender.
Don’t F**k with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer
The limited series actually landed on the streaming site last year, but since lockdown, people have been tuning in and it’s absolutely cat-astrophic!
Not one for the faint-hearted, Don’t F**k with Cats, tells the true story of one of Canada’s most infamous murderers, Luka Magnotta.
The show explores how a group of amateur online sleuths attempted to track him down after he posted a video online killing two kittens. However, as the cat and mouse chase gets deepers, it only encourages Luka to post even more disturbing videos – one of which eventually shows him killing a human.
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness
You’ve seen the memes, you’ve seen the Tiger King himself, you’ve seen all of the world’s problems being blamed on a lady named Carole Baskin, now it’s probably time you got up to speed.
The show started life as an exposé on the shady trading of big cats and exotic animals in the US, but very quickly it began to focus on the men and women on the other side of the fence. Introducing roadside zoo owner Joe Exotic.
Joe is the self-professed Tiger King possesses hundreds of big cats, but it’s his ferocious war with animal rights activist Carole Baskin that dominates the show. The series is a moral quagmire, with few definitive facts, but the vast majority of those documented come out of this tale horribly. The story is progressively more explosive with each passing episode and well worth a visit.
It’s hard to nail down Louis Theroux’s finest works, but he absolutely warrants a place in this list. A back catalogue of the cult hero British journalist’s quests are ready to roll at the click of a finger.
Theroux has gone where few have dared go before, from death row to brothels, from tagging along with UFO hunts to modern day Nazi rallies. He even takes a look behind the curtain of Joe Exotic’s zoo world long before the Netflix cameras rolled into town.
There are so many highlights to pick out of Theroux’s work, with so many topics you’d never think to explore on your own merit. That’s perhaps what makes the shows so enticing. Some of his most fascinating material is located directly in the ‘grey area’, a trip on an African hunting holiday leads to near-impossible moral choices while his visit to a paedophile rehabilitation centre is chilling and perversely fascinating in uncomfortably equal amounts.
Making a Murderer
Netflix’s definitive global docu-series success came at the end of 2015, with the tide of popularity rushing into 2016 and beyond. Making a Murderer looks at the murder case of Teresa Halbach, a young woman who was discovered dead in 2005.
Steven Avery is the focus of the documentary. He was wrongfully jailed for 18 years after being charged for a different murder he was proven to have not committed, but is thrust back into the spotlight after being accused of killing Halbach.
The show explores the main characters in the case, featuring interviews with Avery and his family as well as lawyers working on the case. Numerous twists, suspicious circumstances and contentious evidence adds up to generate a nail-biting trial process, with the world split on the true story of what really happened.
A second season followed the initial 10-episode run but failed to whip up the same storm as the original story. There is a tragic tale at its centre, but the series near-singlehandedly breathed new life into the true crime genre.
A nature documentary observing the glories of the natural world narrated by David Attenborough. We’ve been here before and Our Planet is similar fare to Planet Earth I + II, Frozen Planet, Africa, Blue Planet or any other Attenborough documentary… and that’s exactly why you should soak up every moment of it.
It’s the ultimate ‘if it ain’t broke’ series, and that’s not a bad thing, with stunning landscapes explored and breathtaking footage of all manner of creatures we share this big ol’ rock with. There is one difference, however.
While Planet Earth II moved to boost its eco-conscious narrative, Our Planet makes no apologies about thrusting the topic of climate change directly into your conscience. This may be an instant turn-off for some who simply want a zoo-like observational experience, but it brings greater purpose to the footage on screen having such a narrative behind it. Whatever your motive for watching the show, you won’t be let down.
The timing is quite remarkable – Pandemic launched on 22nd January this year while the coronavirus was bubbling away in Wuhan, an inconvenience to China as opposed to a shutting down of the world. The six-part series observes the frontline defence against outbreaks of influenza, featuring stories and anecdotes from the health workers tasked with shutting down viruses.
Coronavirus was yet to emerge on the global stage during filming, meaning the expert predictions that the world is due a fresh pandemic in the very first episode take on a whole new haunting relevance.
This isn’t a perfect series, it is presented to the layman, those uneducated in exotic diseases, and therefore may not tell the full picture, but it’s still fascinating enough to paint brushstrokes of how outbreaks behave and what may lie ahead.
It doesn’t take much to spark an outrage on social media these days, but Dirty Money gives viewers every right to seethe in this ultimate ‘little man’ versus ‘the man’ anthology.
Each episode can be viewed as an isolated event, but when soaked up as a whole, the themes of maddening greed is relentless. A different director is called upon for each episode, meaning style and tone may shift erratically, but the constant sting of corruption is thrust in front of you, bared to the world.
The mask slips off larger-than-life characters, first-hand accounts from culprits and victims alike will summon up a rage deep within, but it’s hard to turn away.
Topics range from a Wells Fargo scandal to a maple syrup heist, to the Mexican drug cartel, to Donald Trump and back again. Some pack a greater punch than others, but most will set your mind racing.
Blackfish is the film Carole Baskin and Big Cat Rescue had visualised for Tiger King, a globe-shaking exposé of life in shallow water at SeaWorld.
The story follows Tilikum, an orca who lived at the popular water park after being captured off the shores of Iceland in 1983. Three deaths were alleged to be consequences of keeping Tilikum in captivity, with critics also suggesting lifespans for captive orcas to be significantly lower than their wild counterparts.
The premise is fairly simple, this was a film designed to transform how the world views performing orcas, and it achieved its goal emphatically with reports suggesting the park lost a third of its value in the wake of the film’s release.
This impactful film is a straight down the line exploration of the racial divide in the US. The 13th Amendment of the Constitution reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”
Filmmaker Ava DuVernay hones in on the ‘except as a punishment for crime’ exception for slavery line. She explores the idea that while the 13th was designed to officially criminalise slavery, it has served to turn slavery into a far more subtle, equally exploitative industry given the immensity of the nation’s prison system.
The documentary opens with the words of former President Barack Obama stating that while the US boasts five per cent of the world’s population, it has 25 per cent of the planet’s prisoners, many of whom have been forced to work and serve a variety of masters…
There is only one person you will feel sympathy for in this entire film. We counted. Just the one.
Fyre is truly the greatest party that never happened, and the result, this documentary, is far more entertaining than anything that could’ve happened on the influencer-saturated, Insta-filtered island of mayhem.
The Fyre Festival was branded as the ultimate experience, a lavish utopia to be seen at, a luxury music festival that offered everything you could ask for and more, and more, and more. Unfortunately for the entitled guests who had shelled out thousands for the privilege of experiencing this earthly paradise, the branding was all Fyre Festival got right.
The documentary walks through the journey of selling ‘the dream’ only to be left with a horror story shipwreck of a festival that left attendees without food, water or security, while sleeping in tents designed for refugee camps… It has to be seen to be believed.
Music documentaries on world famous artists rarely sink. Let’s face it, if you love Beyonce, you’re going to love this, and you’ve probably already seen it. Homecoming focuses in on Queen Bee’s 2018 Coachella performance, her homage to America’s historically black universities. Homecoming takes you on the road trip from the initial concept to the eventual product, and the movement her career has always encouraged.
This is not just a concert replay, it’s not a mere surface-level celebration of her back catalogue, the film seeks to immerse itself in the world of Beyonce, how she became a brand, an icon, and culminating in Coachella where she became the first black woman to headline the world famous festival.
Beyonce speaks in a phantom-like voiceover for most of the near 140-minute epic, outlining her mission, values and goals, while we watch them being steadily brought to life in her shows.
Some have sought to knock Icarus for its ‘incompatible halves’ of footage being mashed together into one film, when this is arguably its strongest selling point. The pivot from a one-man experiment designed to beat the system erupts into a global scandal proving the system has already fallen.
Filmmaker Bryan Fogel starts out attempting to win a cycling road race in Switzerland with the assistance of performance enhancing drugs – and get away with it. His journey leads to Grigory Rodchenkov and nothing is quite the same afterwards.
The Russian nonchalantly spills details on a widespread doping scandal across his homeland, of which he was a part, and that he claims stretches all the way up to Vladimir Putin himself. The floodgates open, the scandals explodes, Rodchenkov flees into hiding while leaking details of the plot to Fogel.
The theme of doping in sport is an ever-simmering pot, but one that by its very nature is a secretive, abstract operation. Icarus thrusts first-hand evidence explicitly in front of your face. The unravelling of the story, the scale of it, is remarkable to witness.
Check out our list of the best series on Netflix, or see what else is on with our TV Guide