Netflix is known for its extensive library of available documentaries. Though the streaming service is known for its production of true-crime documentaries and music, it deserves more credit for its efforts to detail key events in American history.
For those who want to learn more about American history than they do in the classroom, or learn about the country’s fascinating formation for the first time, Netflix has produced many original documentaries for all viewers.
10 Crack: Cocaine, Corruption & Conspiracy (2021) – 6.7
This no-holds-barred documentary delves into the cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and details how its spread devastated many inner-city communities. The film highlights that unlike earlier drug experiments, crack cocaine created far greater highs and more devastating lows in American culture than any other substance that came before it.
The documentary does a particularly good job of highlighting how racism has been used by US politicians to excuse non-interference in the epidemic. It also offers some very compelling theories as to how the drug was smuggled into the country with the approval of various authorities.
9 Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali (2021) – 6.9
blood brothers tells the story of the friendship between Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali and their eventual falling out. The documentary details how the couple bonded thanks to their role as civil rights leaders and membership in the Nation of Islam, and the forces that drove them apart.
Featuring exclusive archive footage and access to interviews with close friends and family members from both parties, this documentary offers a new, in-depth look at the failed relationship between two of the most influential men in American history.
8th ReMastered: Tricky Dick and the Man in Black (2018) – 7.1
This music documentary chronicles country music superstar Johnny Cash’s musical and political ideology leading up to his famous meeting with President Richard Nixon in April 1970. Featuring interviews with family members and close friends in the music business, the film reveals a side of Cash never seen before.
The film expertly analyzes why country music is strongly associated with conservatism, while also drawing attention to Cash’s often secretive life as a campaigner for Vietnamese soldiers and Native American civil rights. It also highlights Cash’s shortcomings as a contender for a refreshingly honest watch.
7 The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017) – 7.2
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson chronicles the life and untimely death of activist Marsha P. Johnson, a black trans woman and founding member of the modern LGBTQ+ pride movement. The documentary follows activist and contemporary of Johnson, Victoria Cruz, and her investigation into her death.
While the film does not draw any firm conclusions about Marsha P. Johnson’s death, the documentary draws attention to the role that institutional and social homophobia and transphobia played in Johnson’s death and its investigation. For those unfamiliar with Johnson’s story, this documentary is one of many essential films to watch during Pride Month.
6 Get Me Roger Stone (2017) – 7.3
Get me Roger Stone brings to light a political heavyweight in conservative politics that many viewers were probably unaware of. The film’s ability to make connections between Stone’s role in previous political campaigns, such as Richard Nixon’s, and his role in the modern controversies of Trump’s presidency makes it a compelling watch.
5 Change: Battle for America (2021) – 7.7
Will Smith and many other famous faces present a journey through the history of the 14th Amendment – the amendment that gave citizenship to everyone born in the United States – in this limited series. Each episode chronicles the use of the change to fight for the civil rights of America’s most marginalized voices.
Amend is one of Will Smith’s best projects. Each prominent host on the show uses their talents to tell the story of America’s often-unsung heroes in the struggle for civil rights, and plays different roles to provide a multi-faceted look at the history of the 14th Amendment.
4 Crip Camp (2020) – 7.7
crip camp tells the unlikely story of how a rural camp for disabled teenagers in the 1970s known as Camp Jened became the base of the disability rights movement, leading to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. The documentary follows the camp’s former participants as they return to the site and reminisce about the civil rights struggle they participated in.
This Oscar-nominated film is one of the best Netflix documentaries. For those unfamiliar with the lives of people with disabilities, the film offers an insight into their stories that has never been a platform before. For people with disabilities themselves, the powerful narrative shown in the documentary offers an example that equality is always possible, even in the face of incredible odds.
3 Challenger: The Last Flight (2020) – 7.8
This miniseries details the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, in which all seven astronauts were killed after the Challenger shuttle exploded just prior to its flight. The documentary details the shortcomings of some NASA employees and the technical errors that caused the disaster.
While the Challenger tragedy is well known, The last flight gives a rare glimpse into the Challenger astronauts beyond their deaths leading up to the catastrophe. Although the documentary describes a tragic event, there is a poignant celebration of the life of the flight crew dedicated to the mission.
2 Bobby Kennedy for President (2018) – 8.1
This limited series chronicles Robert F. Kennedy’s final years after the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, which led to his own assassination in 1968 during his presidential campaign. The series examines what made RFK a unique politician, despite his family being a political dynasty, and reflects on what could have been in a Bobby Kennedy presidency.
Bobby Kennedy for President is one of Netflix’s most moving documentaries, focusing on how modern his presidential campaign was and how it would have gone today. One particularly touching episode features young waiter Juan Romero tending to a dying Kennedy, who was celebrated at a school in Kennedy’s honor shortly after filming was completed, before he died himself.
1 13. (2016) – 8.2
Ava DuVernay’s masterful documentary explains the direct line that still stands between slavery and the mass incarceration of African Americans, all linked by the 13th Amendment. The 13th Amendment was the article that abolished slavery or involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime.
This documentary is essential for those seeking a better understanding of how institutional racism occurs in America by returning to its historical roots. His use of statistics, historical documents, and interviews with key figures in the civil rights movement creates a feature of tremendous historical importance.
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