Last Updated: June 8th, 2020
History tends to be one of those subjects you either find insanely boring or deeply fascinating. That often comes down to how the stories themselves are conveyed. Sadly, Dan Carlin — who can make any slice of history that he decides to pay attention to feel incredibly engaging — doesn’t have enough time in the day to narrate everything.
Still, we need to know what came before us. And right now feels like an especially important time to learn the lessons of the past. We’re living through an era that will be the subject of documentaries for years, maybe even decades to come. To fully understand this moment, requires added context that only studying history can provide.
The ten documentaries listed below will widen your lens and help you understand the past in new ways. Whether profiling a war, a movement, or offering a straightforward primer, they’ll allow you to dive deep into the moments that define our species and the revolutions that shape our world.
Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 (2017)
Run Time: 144 min | IMDb: 7.7/10
Let It Fall chronicles the decade leading up to the LA riots. It’s an examination of life in LA as institutional and racial tensions came to head with the Rodney King trial. It’s a sobering, in-depth look at a city on the brink that eventually explodes in a cultural and racial war on the city’s streets.
This is living history that resonates heavily, especially in 2020.
Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz (2018)
Run Time: 83 min | IMDb: 7.5/10
Some stories need to be retold over and over again. The story of the last living prosecutor from the Nuremberg trials, Ben Ferencz, is one of those. This documentary follows Ferencz as he recalls liberating fascist death camps in Europe as a soldier and then moves into his time as a prosecutor of the Nazi’s infamous and murderous Einsatzgruppen soldiers — the people directly responsible for countless murders during the Holocaust.
Finally, the film looks at Ferencz’s life after Nuremberg, wherein he championed “law not war” as he helped create the international criminal court for crimes against humanity. It’s a harrowing-yet-promising story of how one man can fight great evil — a story we definitely need to hear right now.
John Leguizamo’s Latin History For Morons (2018)
Run Time: 90 min | IMDb: 7.3/10
John Leguizamo’s Netflix show is part Broadway one-man-show, part stand-up, part family dramedy, and part Indigenous American history. Leguizamo blends thousands of years of oft-ignored Latin American and Indigenous American history with a tale of a father and son figuring out where they fit in a world that wants to erase them. It’s both funny and deeply meaningful.
We aren’t kidding when we say this show is ground-breaking and an essential watch for anyone looking for a hilarious way to get into lost and too often ignored pieces of American history.
The Accountant of Auschwitz (2018)
Run Time: 78 min | IMDb: 7.2/10
This is a tough documentary that’s worth every minute of its run time. The Accountant of Auschwitz follows the trial of a 93-year-old man for crimes he committed when he was 23.
In short, Oskar Gröning was the person at the Auschwitz death camp who sorted through murdered people’s luggage for valuables and cataloged them. When the war ended, it was decided not to prosecute every single person culpable in the crimes of the Holocaust, until Germany changed the laws and started going after all of them. The documentary goes deep on the banality of evil while also asking if there is a statute of limitations on participating in genocide.
Spoiler alert: There is not.
Kevin Hart’s Guide to Black History (2019)
Run Time: 62min | IMDb: 5.5/10
Comedian Kevin Hart is a hell of a teacher. His Guide To Black History is purely family entertainment that speaks to all generations. The conceit is easy, Hart expounds on the many, many Black Americans who’ve helped shape America and the world. These are people we should all be proud of and whose contributions to society we ought to know.
By making these stories straightforward, and comedic, Hart also makes them accessible for everyone. This is an easy watch that’ll fly by with plenty of laughs peppered throughout.
Hitler: A Career (1977)
Run Time: 150 min | IMDb: 7.5/10
The rise, career, and fall of Adolf Hitler is an event in human history that’s been picked apart more than any other. With reason, of course — there are few people who changed the course of history more and murdered more people along the way. Hitler – A Career takes a deep dive into Hitler’s power, personality, and even thoughts through footage Nazi Germany shot of the despot when he was active.
It’s a fascinating time capsule into how one man can convince throngs of people to work against their best interests and how easy it really is to manipulate the masses by leaning on fear and pie-in-the-sky promises.
Run Time: 100 min | IMDb: 8.2/10
Ava DuVernay’s follow up to Selma is a bleak look at the life and times of African Americans stemming from the 13th amendment to the present day. It’s essential viewing for anyone who doesn’t understand how the justice system sets so many up to fail — centering on the constitutional nuance in the 13th amendment that allows slavery for the imprisoned.
The doc goes deep into the implications and real-world applications of the 13th amendment on people of color. DuVernay digs deep with activists, politicians, journalists, and artists to find out why we’re still adhering to an amendment’s clause that causes so much obvious harm. Unfortunately, the answers are not often what we want to hear.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)
Run Time: 105 min | IMDb: 7.2/10
Marsha P. Johnson was one of the loudest voices for gay and trans rights in America. The untimely death and possible murder of Johnson after 1992’s Pride parade was written off by police as a suicide due to clear and deeply-rooted bigotry against the Black community, gay community, and trans community in New York. Eventually, the case would be reopened and investigated as a murder, adding a true crime element to this doc.
As much as the murder acts as a hook, the backbone of this documentary is really Johnson’s life as an activist who lived through big moments in LGBTQI history from the Stonewall Inn Raids and following riots to the AIDS crisis. The doc will leave you in awe of Johnson and the massive amount of bravery it took to keep up those fights.
Bobby Sands 66 Days (2014)
Run Time: 105 min | IMDb: 7.2/10
Bobby Sands staged a 66-day hunger strike that helped bring international attention to the ongoing British colocalization of Northern Ireland. Back in 1981, Sands was imprisoned by the British government but was refused the status of a political prisoner. In response, he started a fateful hunger strike, eventually dying from starvation in prison.
The film weaves Sands’ story with passages from his hunger strike diary that he kept in his prison cell throughout the protest. It’s a harrowing story of a person trying to get the attention of the world to help achieve a modicum of justice for his people and paying the ultimate cost
ReMastered: Who Killed Grand Master Jay? (2018)
Run Time: 58 min | IMDb: 6.6/10
This one-hour long doc comes from Netflix’s ReMastered series which focuses on moments in American music history. This installment takes a look at the unsolved murder of Run DMC’s Grand Master Jay in 2002.
The film breaks down how Jay was murdered in front of six witnesses and then, somehow, went unsolved. After the murder, it becomes clear that the cops never really cared about investigating. That along with people’s unwillingness to snitch, led to this case continuing to be unsolved to this day. It’s a tragic story that touches on how the police continually fail BIPOC communities.