The best documentaries on Netflix


Documentaries on Netflix seem to be on the up. Netflix’s production studios are pumping more out almost every week – some binge-worthy and others just bizarre. Settling in for some good fact-based television is a healthy pastime, and it’s not just Netflix-produced documentaries that are worth a mention. From the BBC to PBS, there’s a ton of docos out there. So, settle in with a hot chocolate because you’re about to learn today!

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What are the best documentaries on Netflix?

From war docos, to sociological docos to music docos, below is an array of the best documentaries you can find – in this author’s opinion – on Netflix… in no apparent order. Most Netflix documentaries in this list involve at least one person killing or being killed, so be warned.

The Staircase

Hey I’m Michael Peterson and I’m the centre of my universe, even when my wife is dead. As the old saying goes, ‘I may not like what you have to say, but I will defend to my death your right to say it’. The same goes for humans, too; Michael Peterson comes off as a bit of a tosser at the best of times, but he does have the right to a fair trial. This, sadly, was not given. Thanks, Durham North Carolina prosecutors.

The Staircase is a slow-burning documentary that is impressive in scope and in access. It spans from Peterson’s pre-trial days of 2002-2003 up until 2017. Much like ‘Making a Murderer’ of yesteryear, you’ll find yourself toing and froing as to whether he did or didn’t do it. This documentary got a bit of flak for being too one-sided, so supplementary listening of the BBC podcast ‘Beyond Reasonable Doubt?’ is essential.

I am a Killer

You’ve probably seen a prison doco before, and probably even one on death row in the United States. I tell ya, the US is unique among first world countries in a lot of ways – the death penalty included. I am a Killer is a 10 part series that details 10 different cases of men being put on death row for heinous crimes. Although, the crime isn’t always so clear cut. While you can watch one part and be satisfied – they are good in their own right – it’s not until you watch them all do you see the beauty in the entire picture.

Upon watching all episodes, you’ll see a trend or a recurring theme. You’ll be hit with the sympathy card, then in 30 seconds a contrary opinion on-screen will unravel it all. The show does well to provide balance, but does err to the side of questioning the death penalty and empathising with the killers, but ultimately it’s up to you to decide. Some killers you’ll despise no matter what, and others you’ll be a bit more empathetic towards. Speaking of themes, drugs, boredom, poverty, broken homes and sexual assault all seem to be common ingredients into breeding a killer. Oh and a lot of episodes take place in Texas. This gets dark and depressing, so beware.

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Back to Netflix documentaries

Evil Genius

Where to start with this one; it’s probably the most bizarre ‘murder’ case you’ll ever see as a documentary. Heard of the collar bomber? Or maybe Brian Wells? Yeah, it’s about that story. If you’re Australian, or even American, this case generated a LOT of press, but it all breezed by, so it was a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ kind of story. However, it’s too bizarre not to be brought up again as a documentary.

Evil Genius details small-town America hitting the big time, with robberies, conspiracies, drugs, prostitution and murder. Erie, Pennsylvania is a working-class town on Lake Erie in the Midwest. It’s not exactly a town tourists flock to, but the Evil Genius series just might spur on some macabre travellers to check it out.

  • Supplementary listening: ‘Casefile’ podcast, episode 81: Brian Wells

Flint Town

It’s amazing that in this day and age a first world country can have a town that does not have access to clean drinking water, and yet here we are. In Flint, Michigan it’s a very real probability that if you drink the town water you will get sick. That’s because the water supply is laden with heavy metal neurotoxins. This is just one of the issues straining an already-strained police department, and this documentary series details exactly that.

Since General Motors pulled out of the town close to Detroit, Flint has been on the decline. Crime, tension, anti-cop sentiments, murders and gang crime all plague the city. The police department is comically short-staffed and underfunded so the best they can do is put sand over the proverbial fire and hope to see through another day.

The Vietnam War

Ken Burns has done it again. Arguably the master of huge, ‘epic’ documentaries in the truest sense of the word, the Vietnam War is not light viewing. It’s ten episodes, with about 80-100 minutes per episode. It’s a slog, but it’s worth it. The documentary series takes you through from the post-World War II era through to the end of the Vietnam war. It’s virtually impossible to get a grasp of the entire scope of the war in a show, but Ken Burns probably gets there.

The Vietnam War docuseries will leave you in awe, in awe of the raw footage on-screen and in awe of the stuff ups and arrogance of the American-backed South Vietnamese forces. If communism wasn’t such a factor, you’d have to wonder what side the American and Australian populace would have backed.

  • SBS originally aired a cut version, that rounded out to about an hour an episode; Netflix shows the unbridled, full-length version.

Hip Hop Evolution

Ever thought an electrical blackout could birth an entire music genre? That’s what happened with hip hop when in 1977 a New York blackout caused widespread looting and lawlessness. Naturally bad for shopkeepers, but good for the impoverished in the ghettoes who now had pilfered stereos, turntables and musical equipment to party with.

Hip Hop Evolution details the genre’s meteoric rise from humble beginnings with fanatical and rich detail, with expert filmmaking. Key hip hop heads are interviewed and the storytelling is impeccable. Even if not a fan of the genre, it’s still great viewing of the most popular music genre’s 40-year rise to dominance.

Shot in the Dark

If you’ve seen the film ‘Nightcrawler’ and thought about where the creators got their inspiration from, this film may serve as an explanation. Called ‘stringers’, people in fast cars zoom around Los Angeles’ streets at night, with a police scanner at the ready, aiming to get the exclusive shots of robberies, car crashes and other bizarre oddities. They operate as independent contractors of news outlets and sell their footage. It’s a lucrative business but requires a lot of hustle.

Shot in the Dark details three rival stringing companies and their quest for the perfect, exclusive shot. If neon-lit, glittering LA streets appeal to you, then this is it. It also shows the nastier side of one of the world’s largest cities. It’s a show that details a profession that blurs the line between ethics and morals and it’s gripping.

Long Shot

Has a sitcom saved your life? No, seriously, a sitcom saved this guy’s life. Accused of murdering a teenage girl, Juan Catalan was arrested by police and charged with carrying out the hit on behalf of his gang-affiliated brother. Except Catalan had an alibi; he was at a Los Angeles Dodgers’ baseball game, even though there was no proof right away. Catalan was facing the death penalty so the situation was dire. But a sitcom saved him – you’ll have to watch to find out. Pretty good.

This is an easily-digestible 40-minute documentary that is both serious, and quite funny. Long Shot is literally a tale of a long shot – a one in a million chance at freedom. It’s ultimately a pretty feel-good documentary that will leave you feeling uplifted after all these grim documentaries you’ve watched.

Team Foxcatcher

If you’ve seen the film ‘Foxcatcher’ with Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, this is a must watch. It details the true events of John du Pont, an eccentric lonely millionaire who sets up an Olympic-quality wrestling team. If you ever made jokes about that weird lonely kid in school who would pay kids to hang out with him, this is basically it, just on a larger scale. Sadly, it all ends in tragedy.

This documentary makes you realise how much Carell nailed his role. It’s safe to say that du Pont was one odd guy. This documentary is chilling and enthralling; you won’t be able to sleep after, especially as it details du Pont’s paranoia and schizophrenic episodes.

Strong Island

One bullet. That’s all it takes. One bullet is all it takes to tear a family and a community apart. Strong Island is directed by Yance Ford and centres on the 1992 murder of her brother, William. Based – unsurprisingly – in Long Island, the Ford family was a lower middle-class family just like any other. The most fascinating aspect of the film is that it is so normal.

The film is at times hard to watch, because of the sheer emotion displayed on camera. But perhaps the most chilling thing is the fact this documentary blends into all other documentaries just like it – forming a bigger picture into miscarriages of justice, subtle racism still alive in the US today and inept police work. For every William Ford, there are 1,000 others just like him.

What should I watch on Netflix?

The listed documentaries are pretty dark, but there are plenty of other enlightening documentaries on the world’s biggest streaming service. That’s Netflix BTW. If you’ve got a spare hour or two – or a whole weekend – bingeing on these documentaries is a good way to both educate and entertain.

From the totally bizarre such as Team Foxcatcher, to the harrowing such as Strong Island, to the downright compelling such as Flint Town, Netflix has something for everyone. Grab the popcorn, dim the lights, send the kids to bed and get ready for a binge sesh.

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