When Trump Administration officials allowed filmmakers Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau to embed with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) over two and a half years—beginning in 2017 during the Trump-ordered surge of ICE arrests—they thought the resultant Netflix documentary would be favorable. Instead, Netflix’s Immigration Nation, explored a hardline and, at times, hypocritical approach to immigration enforcement in America. When Schwarz and Clusiau presented a draft of the documentary to ICE before publication (as they had promised), ICE was not happy.
In an interview with The New York Times, the filmmakers said ICE publicity officials pushed them to delay the documentary until after the 2020 presidential election, threatened their production company, and lead both documentarians to use encrypted messaging and secure raw film footage. They were afraid of censorship. (ICE denied that such intimidation was ever used.)
Immigration Nation hit Netflix in August uncensored, proving to be an indictment of the ethics and efficacy of American immigration policies. The documentary series highlights exactly the sort of journalistic work a mega-company like Netflix can produce, protect, and distribute. It’s one of the streaming network’s best documentaries, and one you need to check out. But this is only the start to the streaming platform’s other great works.
From tales of a competitive cheerleading competition to a massive doping scandal, these are the 28 best documentaries you can stream on Netflix right now.
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A story of high school wrestling, which is, in fact, a story about adversity and struggle and triumph and identity. The film is 11 minutes long. You have no excuse.
The Square (2013)
Jehane Noujaim’s window into Egypt on the eve, the day of, and the weeks after revolution is essential viewing. So much of where the region is today began in Tahir Square.
The Trader (2018)
The short documentary follows an impoverished trader living in the Republic of Georgia and is both crushing and excellent in equal measure.
The Last Dance (2020)
ESPN’s miniseries frames the career of Michael Jordan though his final season with the Chicago Bulls. It’s a can’t-miss documentary for sports fans.
Athlete A (2020)
Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk follow journalists from The Indianapolis Star as they investigate Larry Nassar, exposing one of the most exploitative abuses of power in sports history.
Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé (2019)
It’s one of the best concert films ever, following Queen B’s performance at Coachella and the emotional road behind the show’s cultural impact.
Navarro College is the junior college you’ve never heard of, competing in a sport you didn’t know had such electric competitions. It’s as much character study as sports doc.
Last Chance U (2016-2020)
From the same filmmakers as Cheer: the even more expansive look at junior college football where the stakes are higher than the NFL.
Wild, Wild Country (2018)
A cult documentary that launched a thousand Netflix cult documentaries, Wild, Wild Country explores the fanaticism surrounding supposed guru Bhagwan Shree Janjneesh.
Period. End of Sentence (2018)
Rayka Zehtabchi chronicles the sexual revolutionary struggle of Indian women as they work to make essential sanitary products more available. The short film took home the Academy Award last year.
Flint Town (2018)
Covering the period between November 2015 and early 2017, this documentary series takes viewers inside Flint Michigan’s growing crisis as seen through the eyes of its police department. Poverty. Crime. And water.
From the directors of Immigration Nation, Trophy explores poaching and the commodification of wildlife. It’s hard to watch at times, but absolutely necessary.
Waiting for Superman (2010)
The film is not without extreme controversy and attacks from educators and administrators. Still, Waiting for Superman, exposes a deeply flawed American education system, which often leaves students behind.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat (2018)
Starring vivacious Chef Samin Nosrat, the documentary series is smart, joyous, and infinitely hunger-inducing.
Chef’s Table (2015 – )
Another culinary documentary treat is Chef’s Table, a documentary anthology profiling the world’s top and most ambitious chefs. Turn up the Vivaldi.
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017)
The film follows Jim Carrey as he physically, emotionally, and spiritually embodies the person of Andy Kaufman for the movie Man on the Moon. It’s a compelling exploration of acting, selfhood, and whatever’s happening in Carrey’s wonderful brain.
The Dawn Wall (2017)
One of the best adventure documentary’s of all time, The Dawn Wall follows climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson as they attempt a seemingly impossible 3,000-foot ascent.
Tell Me Who I Am (2019)
The film follows twins Alex and Marcus. Alex lost his memory at age 18, leading his brother to help him reconstruct the first part of his life. But what Marcus decides to leave out may be the most impactful moment on both their indentities.
Sunderland ‘Til I Die (2018 – )
In 2017, Sunderland was relegated from England’s top football league. The next season would be the biggest test for the club, the fans, and the city of Sunderland. It’s maybe the best sports documentary series on Netflix right now.
The apogee of team sports documentaries, Undefeated follows the historically loosing Manassas Tigers through their seniors’ final season, and, the rest of their lives. It’s only the beginning.
Filmed using only historical footage, Senna tells the tragic story of the Brazilian racing legend Aryton Senna—his rivalries, his eccentricities, and his national burdens.
Blackfish caused, well, waves. An expose on SeaWorld and the captured orca Tilikum, Blackfish indicted an entertainment industry that has never recovered its image.
13th is a film about American slavery after slavery. Ava DuVernay’s reporting incriminates more than America’s criminal justice system. It rebukes also our attitudes and our silence.
Errol Morris’s docuseries about the CIA’s controversial biological warfare program turns from political investigation into a family drama and surprising character study. This is how you do a docuseries.
The White Helmets (2016)
Ignore the massive online propaganda operation to connect the group with terrorist organization. These Syrian medical volunteers known as “White Helmets” fight real selfless battles every day and in a conflict seemingly without end. There’s no conspiracy here. Only tragedy.
I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
Based on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, the documentary explores the history of U.S. racism through the observations, writings, and stories of one of America’s greatest thinkers.
Bryan Fogel began the film investigating doping in American cycling and somewhere along the way stumbled upon one of the biggest scandals in international sports history. A documentary about far more than it seems, we think it’s one of the best Netflix has to offer.
Immigration Nation (2020)
We’ll end where we began. Immigration Nation accomplishes everything a documentary can hope to achieve, revealing a salient story through dozens of characters, perspectives, and heart-wrenching scenes, which never feel forced or political. They’re just real. Tragic, preventable, and real.
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