The 25 Best Documentaries You Can Stream Right Now

Netflix
Netflix

The great filmmaker Albert Maysles once explained the power of nonfiction moviemaking by saying, “When you see somebody on the screen in a documentary, you’re really engaged with a person going through real life experiences, so for that period of time, as you watch the film, you are, in effect, in the shoes of another individual. What a privilege to have that experience.”

A privilege, yes, and a privilege that’s outsized for us today. We now have access to thousands of documentaries online, allowing us all kinds of shapes and sizes of shoes to step into. To extend our personal knowledge of human experience. Thousands of little empathy machines. Small windows into lives that aren’t our own.

Here are 25 of the best documentaries that you can stream right now.

1. 13TH (2016)

Following the breakout prestige of Selma, Ava DuVernay constructed an exploration of the criminalization of black individuals in the United States, crafting a throughline from slavery to the modern private prison boom. Eschewing an overdramatized style, DuVernay calmly, patiently lays out facts and figures that will drop your jaw only until you start clenching it.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. AILEEN: LIFE AND DEATH OF A SERIAL KILLER (2003)

For those only familiar with Aileen Wuornos through Charlize Theron’s portrayal in Monster, Nick Broomfield’s documentary offers a considered portrait of the human being behind the murderer. In his first film about Wuornos, The Selling of a Serial Killer, Broomfield considered her as a victim of abuse and betrayal, with her image commodified. In this follow-up, he takes us all the way to the day of her execution, wondering how anyone would think she was of sound mind.

Where to watch it: Netflix and Amazon Prime

3. ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL (2017)

“Too big to fail” entered the lexicon following 2008’s bursting housing bubble, but while the world’s largest banks skated through, Abacus Federal Savings Bank was deemed small enough to prosecute. Steve James (of Hoop Dreams fame) has crafted an intimate, Oscar-nominated look at the Chinatown bank that became the only financial institution to face criminal charges in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis, starting at the family level before zooming out to the community and country.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

4. STOLEN SEAS (2013)

Constructed using real audio and found footage of the 2008 hostage negotiation aboard a Danish shipping vessel, filmmaker Thymaya Payne’s film isn’t content to simply shine a light on the horrific reality of a Somali pirate attack; it strikes to build a contextual understanding of what these attacks mean for the rest of the world. For all of us.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

5. BEST OF ENEMIES (2015)

Both quaint and prescient, the televised debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal during the 1968 Republican National Convention show us a midpoint between idealized civic discussion and the worst instincts of modern punditry. This sly documentary explains the force of this rivalry, its ironic popularity as televised circus, and the aftermath of all the clever insults.

Where to watch it: Netflix

6. CALIFORNIA TYPEWRITER (2017)

A bright palate cleanser that shouldn’t be overlooked just because it isn’t emotionally devastating. The success of this film is its ability to transfer other people’s obsessions to the viewer. Tom Hanks, John Mayer, historians, collectors, and repairmen all share their abiding love for the click-clack of a device that defies obsolescence. You may crave a Smith Corona when it’s all over.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

7. CAMERAPERSON (2016)

Patience is rewarded in this thoughtful, dazzling cinematic quilt of footage collected from 25 years of Kirsten Johnson’s career as a cinematographer. Her lens takes us to Brooklyn for boxing, Bosnia for post-war life, Nigeria for midwifery, and more.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

8. CARTEL LAND (2015)

Raw and fearsome, Matthew Heineman’s documentary puts you in the boots on the ground of the Mexican Drug War. This gripping look at Arizona Border Recon and the Autodefensas of Michoacán shows what happens when governments fail citizens who are in the line of fire.

Where to watch it: Netflix and Amazon Prime

9. CASTING JONBENET (2017)

This isn’t the documentary you’d expect it to be. Kitty Green took an experimental approach that’s less about rehashing the true crime sensationalism of the headline-owning murder of a child beauty queen and more about how many stories can be contained in a single story. Green auditioned actors from JonBenét Ramsey’s hometown and, in the process of making several dramatizations, interviewed them about what it was like living in the area during the 1996 investigations (and what they think really happened).

Where to watch it: Netflix

10. CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS (2011)

There’s nothing like hanging out with Werner Herzog in an ancient cave. Herzog filmed in the Chauvet Cave in southern France to document the oldest known human-painted images, which is fortunate for us because the cave isn’t open to the public. It’s a wondrous nature documentary about us.

Where to watch it: Netflix

11. CITY OF GHOSTS (2017)

Another brutal hit from Matthew Heineman, this documentary carries the audience into the Syrian conflict through the eyes of citizen journalist collective Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, which both reports on war news and acts as a counter to propaganda efforts from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Some documentaries are interesting, but this one is also necessary. 

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

12. DARK DAYS (2000)

Before Humans of New York there was Dark Days. This delicate, funny, mournful project is a true blend of reality and art. Marc Singer made it after befriending and living among the squatter community living in the Freedom Tunnel section of the New York City subway. Despite never making a movie before, he decided that shining a light on these homeless neighbors would be the best way to help them.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

13. EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP (2010)

Covered in spray paint and questionable facial hair decisions, this documentary displays the transformation of Thierry Guetta from clothing shop owner to celebrated street artist, but since Banksy directed it, it’ll never shake the question of its authenticity. Real doc? Elaborate prank? Entertaining either way.

Where to watch it: Netflix

14. GAGA: FIVE FOOT TWO (2017)

It’s incredibly honest. As much as an inside look into the life of a global pop superstar can be. Lady Gaga (real name Stefani Germanotta) spends a healthy amount of the movie standing around without makeup, waxing wise and humorously before jumping face-first into her work and fanbase. The film focuses on her time crafting her Joanne album and her Super Bowl halftime show, but they could make one of these every few years without it getting stale because Gaga is a tower of magnetism.

Where to watch it: Netflix

15. THE INTERRUPTERS (2012)

In the middle of gang violence in Chicago, CeaseFire attempts to use members’ direct experiences to ward off new brutalities. Dubbed “violence interrupters,” Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra are at the heart of this vital film about ending community violence by employing disease-control strategies, and the Herculean task of reversing systemic criminal activity without losing sight of the humanity of the people affected.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

16. JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI (2012)

Let’s hope that this meditative, sumptuous documentary never leaves Netflix’s shores. The portrait of then-85-year-old Sukiyabashi Jiro’s quest for unattainable perfection is both food porn and a somber-sweet consideration of the satisfaction and disquiet of becoming the best in the world at something and, somehow, striving for better.

Where to watch it: Netflix

17. JOSHUA: TEENAGER VS SUPERPOWER (2017)

When someone tells you it can’t be done, show them this. The simple title both celebrates and belies the smallness of one person fighting a system. Joe Piscatella’s doc follows the explosive growth of the Hong Kong protest movement engaged by teen activist Joshua Wong when the Chinese government refused to act on its promise of granting autonomy to the region, and it is a dose of pure inspiration.

Where to watch it: Netflix

18. THE LOOK OF SILENCE (2014)

Joshua Oppenheimer and Anonymous’s sequel to the Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing features an Indonesian man whose brother was murdered during the 1965 purge of Communists talking to his brother’s killers while literally checking their vision. His bravery and composure are astonishing, as is the insight into the many rationalities unrepentant men use to shield their psyches from their own heinous acts. A peerless piece of investigative art.

Where to watch it: Netflix

19. MY SCIENTOLOGY MOVIE (2017)

An absurdist rabbit chase and a deliberate provocation, writer/star Louis Theroux’s punk documentary poked the bear of the infamous religion in order to get access to it. They auditioned young actors to recreate real-life events described by ex-members, got denounced by the church, and even got into a “Who’s On First”-style argument with a member (“You tell him to turn the camera off then I’ll tell him to turn the camera off!”). Serious subject matter by way of Borat.

Where to watch it: Netflix

20. THE NIGHTMARE (2015)

This documentary by Rodney Ascher should be seen by everyone and somehow be banned from being seen. Not content to profile people suffering from sleep paralysis—the condition where you can’t move or speak while falling asleep or awakening, yeah—Ascher riffs on the hallucinations that sometimes accompany the ailment. As if being frozen weren’t enough. The result is a true story that’s just as effective as a horror film.

Where to watch it: Netflix

21. PUMPING IRON (1977)

A landmark docudrama about the Mr. Olympia competition, this is the film that launched a wannabe actor from Austria into the public conscious. Arnold Schwarzenegger is brash and beautiful in this celebration of body perfection which finds a balance between joy and the teeth-gritting agony of endurance. Great back then, it’s now a fascinating artifact of the soon-to-be action star/politician.

Where to watch it: Netflix

22. BEING ELMO (2011)

Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, puppeteer Kevin Clash shares his childhood growing up in Baltimore and the road to a career as a furry red monster on Sesame Street. It’s a delightful peek behind the curtain to see how magic is made, featuring interviews with legends like Frank Oz and Kermit Love. Pairs well with I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story (which is available to rent on Amazon).

Where to watch it: Netflix

23. STORIES WE TELL (2013)

An absolute personal stunner, actress Sarah Polley directed this docudrama about the scariest thing you can reveal to the world: your family. It’s an emotional, gamut-spanning search for identity that requires reconciling conflicting views about your parents and digging through buried secrets. Polley bringing them into full view, for all of us to see, is a selfless act that resulted in an outstanding piece of art.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

24. THE THIN BLUE LINE (1988)

A modern classic of nonfiction storytelling. Through archival footage, interviews, and reenactments, documentary royalty Errol Morris used this film to argue the innocence of a man destined for lethal injection. It tells the story of Randall Dale Adams, who was sentenced to death for killing a police officer in 1976, despite evidence that the real killer—a minor at the time—had committed the crime. A must-see for fans of Making a Murderer.

Where to watch it: Netflix

25. TIG (2015)

When you get diagnosed with cancer, the natural thing is to perform a stand-up act about it the same day, right? Comedian Tig Notaro became famous overnight when her set confronting her same-day diagnosis went viral, and this documentary from Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York focuses on the year that followed. A rocky year that deals with death, a new career chapter, a new relationship, and possibly a new child. It’s okay to laugh through the tears.

Where to watch it: Netflix

Ira Aldridge: The Black Shakespearean Actor Who Broke Theater's Color Barrier

Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Henry Perronet Briggs, Wikimedia // Public Domain

It's easy to forget that before the dawn of film, stage actors were power players; many of them carried just as much clout as modern Hollywood stars. In 1880, Sarah Bernhardt earned $46,000 for a month of performances on her first New York tour alone (which would be well over $1 million today). In 1895, English actor Henry Irving made enough of a name for himself to become the first actor in history to receive a British knighthood. And way back in 1849, two rival Shakespearean actors, William Macready and Edwin Forrest, caused such a stir with their competing productions of Macbeth that their fans ended up rioting in the streets of Manhattan.

But before all of them, there was Ira Aldridge. Born in New York in 1807, Aldridge made such a name for himself in the theaters of the mid-19th century that he went on to be awarded high cultural honors, and is today one of just 33 people honored with a bronze plaque on a chair at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. But what makes Aldridge’s achievements all the more extraordinary is that, at a time of widespread intolerance and racial discrimination in the U.S., he was black.

Young, Gifted, and Black

The son of a minister and his wife, Aldridge attended New York’s African Free School, which had been established by the New York Manumission Society to educate the city's black community. His first taste of the theater was probably at Manhattan’s now-defunct Park Theatre, and before long he was hooked. While still a student, Aldridge made his stage debut—at the African Grove Theatre, which had been established by free black New Yorkers around 1821—in a performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s adaptation of Pizarro. According to some accounts, his Shakespearean debut followed not long after, when he took on the title role in the African Grove Theatre's production of Romeo & Juliet.

These early performances were successes, as was the African Grove Theatre, which quickly proved the most renowned of the few theaters in New York staffed mainly by black actors and attended mostly by black audiences. But despite these early triumphs, both Aldridge and the Grove had their fair share of hardships.

Shortly after its opening, the Grove was forced to close by city officials, supposedly over noise complaints. The project was relocated to Bleecker Street, but this move took the theater away from its core black audience in central Manhattan and planted it closer to several larger, more upmarket theaters, with which it now had to compete. Smaller audiences, coupled with resentment and competition from its predominantly white-attended neighbors, soon led to financial difficulties. And all of these problems were compounded by near-constant harassment from the police, city officials, and intolerant local residents.

Eventually, the situation proved unsustainable: The Grove closed just two years later (and was reportedly burned to the ground in mysterious circumstances in 1826). As for Aldridge, having both witnessed and endured racist abuse and discrimination in America, he decided he'd had enough. In 1824, he left the U.S. for England.

The African Tragedian

Ira Aldridge in the role of Othello, 1854
Ira Aldridge as Othello in 1854
Houghton Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By this time, the British Empire had already abolished its slave trade, and an emancipation movement was growing. Aldridge realized that Britain was a much more welcoming prospect for a young, determined black actor like himself—but what he didn’t know was that his transatlantic crossing would prove just as important as his decision to emigrate.

To cover the costs of his travel, Aldridge worked as a steward aboard the ship that took him to Britain, but during the journey he made the acquaintance of British actor and producer James Wallack. The pair had met months earlier in New York, and when they happened to meet again en route to Europe, Wallack offered Aldridge the opportunity to become his personal attendant. On their arrival in Liverpool, Aldridge quit his stewardship, entered into Wallack’s employ, and through him began to cultivate numerous useful contacts in the world of theater. In May 1825 Aldridge made his London debut, becoming the first black actor in Britain ever to play Othello

The critics—although somewhat unsure how to take a "gentleman of colour lately arrived from America"—were won over by Aldridge’s debut performance in a production of Othello at the Royalty Theatre. They praised his "fine natural feeling" and remarked that "his death was certainly one of the finest physical representations of bodily anguish we ever witnessed." Astonishingly, Aldridge was still just 17 years old.

From his London debut at the Royalty, Aldridge slowly worked his way up the city’s playbill, playing ever-more-upmarket theaters across London. His Othello transferred to the Royal Coburg Theatre later in 1825. A lead role in a stage adaptation of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko followed, as did an acclaimed supporting turn in Titus Andronicus. To prove his versatility, he took on a well-received comedic role as a bumbling butler in an 18th-century comedy, The Padlock. Aldridge’s reputation grew steadily, and before long he was receiving top billing as the “African Roscius” (a reference to the famed Ancient Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus) or the renowned “African Tragedian”—the first African-American actor to establish himself outside of America.

Even in the more-accepting society of abolitionist Britain, however, Aldridge still had mountains to climb. When his portrayal of Othello later moved to Covent Garden in 1833, some reviewers thought a black actor treading the boards on one of London’s most hallowed stages was simply a step too far. The critics soured, their reviews became more scathing—and the racism behind them became ever more apparent.

Campaigns were launched to have Aldridge removed from the London stage, with the local Figaro newspaper among his vilest opponents. Shortly after his Covent Garden debut, the paper openly campaigned to cause “such a chastisement as must drive [Aldridge] from the stage … and force him to find [work] in the capacity of footman or street-sweeper, that level for which his colour appears to have rendered him peculiarly qualified.” Fortunately, they weren’t successful—but the affair temporarily ruined the London stage for Aldridge.

"The Greatest of All Actors"

Portrait of Ira Aldridge by Taras Shevchenko in 1858
Portrait of Ira Aldridge in 1858
Taras Shevchenko, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Instead of accepting defeat, Aldridge took both Othello and The Padlock on a tour of Britain’s provincial theaters. The move proved to be an immense success.

During his national tour, Aldridge amassed a great many new fans, and even became manager of the Coventry Theatre in 1828, making him the first black manager of a British theater. He also earned a name for himself by passing the time between performances lecturing on the evils of slavery, and lending his increasingly weighty support to the abolitionist movement.

Next, he took his tour to Ireland, and on his arrival in Dublin became a near-instant star. With the island still locked in a tense relationship with Britain at the time, he was welcomed with open arms when Irish theatergoers heard how badly he had been treated in London. (In one flattering address in Dublin, Aldridge told the audience: “Here the sable African was free / From every bond, save those which kindness threw / Around his heart, and bound it fast to you.”)

By the 1830s, Aldridge was touring Britain and Ireland with a one-man show of his own design, mixing impeccable dramatic monologues and Shakespearean recitals with songs, tales from his life, and lectures on abolitionism. As an antidote to the blackface minstrel shows that were popular at the time, he also began donning “whiteface” to portray roles as diverse as Shylock, Macbeth, Richard III, and King Lear. When the notorious Thomas Rice arrived in England with his racist “Jump Jim Crow” minstrel routine, Aldridge skillfully and bravely weaved one of Rice’s own skits into his show: By parodying the parody, he robbed Rice’s performance of its crass impact—while simultaneously showing himself to be an expert performer in the process.

Such was his popularity that Aldridge could easily have seen out his days in England, playing to packed theaters every night for the rest of career. But by the 1850s, word of his skill as an actor had spread far. Never one to shy away from a challenge, in 1852 he assembled a troupe of actors and headed out on a tour of the continent.

Within a matter of months, Aldridge had become perhaps the most lauded actor in all Europe. Critics raved about his performances, with one German writer even suggesting that he may well be “the greatest of all actors.” A Polish reviewer noted, "Though the majority of spectators did not speak English, they did, however, understand the feelings portrayed on the artist's face, eyes, lips, in the tones of his voice, in the entire body." Celebrity fans were quick to assemble, including the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, and the renowned French poet Théophile Gautier, who was impressed by Aldridge's portrayal of King Lear in Paris. Royalty soon followed, with Friedrich-Wilhelm IV, the King of Prussia, awarding Aldridge the Prussian Gold Medal for Art and Science. In Saxe-Meiningen (now a part of Germany), he was given the title of Chevalier Baron of Saxony in 1858.

Aldridge continued his European tours for another decade, using the money he earned to buy two properties in London (including one, suitably enough, on Hamlet Road). But by then, the Civil War was over and America beckoned. Now in his late fifties—but no less eager for a challenge—Aldridge planned one last venture: a 100-date tour of the post-emancipation United States. Contracts and venues were hammered out, and the buzz for Aldridge’s eagerly-awaited homecoming tour began to circulate.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Just weeks before his planned departure, Aldridge fell ill with a lung condition while on tour in Poland. He died in Łódź in 1867, at the age of 60, and was buried in the city’s Evangelical Cemetery.

After his death, several theaters and troupes of black actors—including Philadelphia's famed Ira Aldridge Troupe—were established in Aldridge’s name, and countless black playwrights, performers, and directors since have long considered him an influence on their work and writing.

In August 2017, on the 150th anniversary of Aldridge's death, Coventry, England unveiled a blue heritage plaque in the heart of the city, commemorating Aldridge's theater there. Even this long after his death, the extraordinary life of Ira Aldridge has yet to be forgotten.

8 Enlightening Facts About Dr. Ruth Westheimer

Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu
Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu

For decades, sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer has used television, radio, the written word, and the internet to speak frankly on topics relating to human sexuality, turning what were once controversial topics into healthy, everyday conversations.

At age 90, Westheimer shows no signs of slowing down. As a new documentary, Ask Dr. Ruth, gears up for release on Hulu this spring, we thought we’d take a look at Westheimer’s colorful history as an advisor, author, and resistance sniper.

1. The Nazis devastated her childhood.

Dr. Ruth was born Karola Ruth Siegel on June 4, 1928 in Wiesenfeld, Germany, the only child of Julius and Irma Siegel. When Ruth was just five years old, the advancing Nazi party terrorized her neighborhood and seized her father in 1938, presumably to shuttle him to a concentration camp. One year later, Karola—who eventually began using her middle name and took on the last name Westheimer with her second marriage in 1961—was sent to a school in Switzerland for her own protection. She later learned that her parents had both been killed during the Holocaust, possibly at Auschwitz.

2. She shocked classmates with her knowledge of taboo topics.

Westheimer has never been bashful about the workings of human sexuality. While working as a maid at an all-girls school in Switzerland, she made classmates and teachers gasp with her frank talk about menstruation and other topics that were rarely spoken of in casual terms.

3. She trained as a sniper for Jewish resistance fighters in Palestine.

Following the end of World War II, Westheimer left Switzerland for Israel, and later Palestine. She became a Zionist and joined the Haganah, an underground network of Jewish resistance fighters. Westheimer carried a weapon and trained as both a scout and sniper, learning how to throw hand grenades and shoot firearms. Though she never saw direct action, the tension and skirmishes could lapse into violence, and in 1948, Westheimer suffered a serious injury to her foot owing to a bomb blast. The injury convinced her to move into the comparatively less dangerous field of academia.

4. A lecture ignited her career.

 Dr. Ruth Westheimer participates in the annual Charity Day hosted by Cantor Fitzgerald and BGC at Cantor Fitzgerald on September 11, 2015 in New York City.
Robin Marchant, Getty Images for Cantor Fitzgerald

In 1950, Westheimer married an Israeli soldier and the two relocated to Paris, where she studied psychology at the Sorbonne. Though the couple divorced in 1955, Westheimer's education continued into 1959, when she graduated with a master’s degree in sociology from the New School in New York City. (She received a doctorate in education from Columbia University in 1970.) After meeting and marrying Manfred Westheimer, a Jewish refugee, in 1961, Westheimer became an American citizen.

By the late 1960s, she was working at Planned Parenthood, where she excelled at having honest conversations about uncomfortable topics. Eventually, Westheimer found herself giving a lecture to New York-area broadcasters about airing programming with information about safe sex. Radio station WYNY offered her a show, Sexually Speaking, that soon blossomed into a hit, going from 15 minutes to two hours weekly. By 1983, 250,000 people were listening to Westheimer talk about contraception and intimacy.

5. People told her to lose her accent.

Westheimer’s distinctive accent has led some to declare her “Grandma Freud.” But early on, she was given advice to take speech lessons and make an effort to lose her accent. Westheimer declined, and considers herself fortunate to have done so. “It helped me greatly, because when people turned on the radio, they knew it was me,” she told the Harvard Business Review in 2016.

6. She’s not concerned about her height, either.

In addition to her voice, Westheimer became easily recognizable due to her diminutive stature. (She’s four feet, seven inches tall.) When she was younger, Westheimer worried her height might not be appealing. Later, she realized it was an asset. “On the contrary, I was lucky to be so small, because when I was studying at the Sorbonne, there was very little space in the auditoriums and I could always find a good-looking guy to put me up on a windowsill,” she told the HBR.

7. She advises people not to take huge penises seriously.

Westheimer doesn’t frown upon pornography; in 2018, she told the Times of Israel that viewers can “learn something from it.” But she does note the importance of separating fantasy from reality. “People have to use their own judgment in knowing that in any of the sexually explicit movies, the genitalia that is shown—how should I say this? No regular person is endowed like that.”

8. She lectures on cruise ships.

Westheimer uses every available medium—radio, television, the internet, and even graphic novels—to share her thoughts and advice about human sexuality. Sometimes, that means going out to sea. The therapist books cruise ship appearances where she offers presentations to guests on how best to manage their sex lives. Westheimer often insists the crew participate and will regularly request that the captain read some of the questions.

“The last time, the captain was British, very tall, and had to say ‘orgasm’ and ‘erection,’” she told The New York Times in 2018. “Never did they think they would hear the captain talk about the things we were talking about.” Of course, that’s long been Westheimer’s objective—to make the taboo seem tame.

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