Last Updated: December 5th
History tends to be one of those subjects you either find insanely boring or massively fascinating. Often that comes down to the execution of the history being conveyed — because Dan Carlin sadly doesn’t have enough time in the day to narrate every historical story to us.
Below we’ve compiled a list of some of the best historical documentaries on Netflix. These are the outliers, the moments of pure insanity, and the movements that have shaped our world.
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, that of 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 murdering people during the Holocaust.
Finally, the film looks at Ferencz 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 need to hear right now as so many toy with the ideas of racial supremacy yet again.
Kevin Hart’s Guide to Black History (2019)
Run Time: 62min | IMDb: 5.5/10
Comedian Kevin Hart is a good 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. People we should all be proud of and whose contributions to society we ought to know.
By making these stories straightforward, and comedic, Hart’s also makes them accessible for everyone. This is an easy watch for a lazy afternoon that’ll fly by with plenty of laughs peppered throughout.
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017)
Run Time: 88 min | IMDb: 7.4/10
The story of Hollywood bombshell Hedy Lamarr is crazy. For the better part of a century, most people chalked up the starlet’s biography to movie star and that was about it. Then, slowly, the exploits of Lamarr throughout the Second World War started to trickle out — she was in the same room as Hitler on more than one occasion before defecting to the United States. And, then, it came to light that the silver screen star was behind the invention/patenting of little things called Bluetooth and WiFi.
Lamarr’s Hollywood history is rife enough for a great documentary, but her work in spying and invention make this a crucial history worth delving into.
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 and implications of prosecuting a 93-year-old man for crimes he committed when he was 23.
In short, Oskar Gröning was the Nazi 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 genocide.
Spoiler alert: There is not.
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 skipped 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. You will laugh and you will cry a tear or two.
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) American history.
The Look Of Silence (2014)
Run Time: 103 min | IMDb: 8.3/10
This film is best watched as a double feature after The Act Of Killing (which is no longer available on Netflix). Killing is considered a seminal documentary experience by recreating the atrocities of the Indonesian government against anti-Suharto Indonesians with the people who meted out those atrocities.
It’s a harrowing look at the banality of evil. The Look Of Silence flips the script and delves into what it was like for the victims of that wanton violence. Together the films provide a look into what CIA-led US meddling looks like on the ground. And it’s terrifying.
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 thanks to a 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 always what we want to hear.
American Experience: Ruby Ridge (2017)
Run Time: 53 min | IMDb: 7.5/10
PBS’s American Experience consistently puts out one-hour documentaries that take deep looks at events throughout American history. This installment on the Ruby Ridge fiasco is a clear-eyed examination of the history of the Randy Weaver, his family, and a friend who made a stand against the United States Marshalls when they were trying to serve a warrant for firearms charges against Weaver.
A shootout ensued and three people ended up dead — one US Marshall, Weavers wife, and his 14-year-old son. It was a sobering moment in American history that crystallized the far right against the US government.
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, there are few people who changed the course of history more and murdered more people along the way thanks to far-right political exuberance. Hitler – A Career takes a deep dive into Hitler’s power, personality, and even thoughts through footage Nazi Germany shot of the despot in due diligence as it was happening.
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.
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 to this day.