True crime is a bit of a weird genre. There’s a lot to be gleaned from learning about the abuses, failures, and corruption of our various systems. Finding out how police coercion works or bearing witness to full-on criminal activities by the police teaches lessons many of us need to learn right now. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have the voyeuristic side to true crime that’s almost a celebration of crime — especially white male serial killers. It’s weird but often hard to turn away from.
All of that makes finding the “best true crime documentaries” a balancing act between the teachable moments and thriller-esque viewing pleasure. For this list, we’re going to try and skip the more sensational pieces of My-Favorite-Murder bait and focus on stories that expose, not celebrate crime. The 12 true crime documentaries below touch on several sectors of society — police discrimination, our broken justice and penal systems, ingrained bigotry, sexism, and highlight some bizarrely evil crimes. Hopefully, instead of stoking fear, these docs will help to educate and illuminate the world we live in.
Strong Island (2017)
Run Time: 107 mins. | IMDb Rating: 6.4/10
In April 1992, William Ford was shot dead at an auto shop. The 24-year-old black man was murdered by a 19-year-old white man, Mark P. Reilly, over complaints Ford had with the quality of work at the auto shop. He was unarmed and shot dead for it. Of course, this being a story of white-on-black violence in the United States, the story doesn’t end there. An all-white grand jury gave the white Reilly the benefit of the doubt and decided his murder was an act of self-defense.
The Oscar-nominated documentary walks us through the murder and the bafflingly-yet-familiar aftermath wherein the police and judicial systems failed Ford’s family in bringing his murderer to justice. The ending of this doc is too familiar to spoil and will leave you ready to take to the streets.
Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator (2019)
Run Time: 86 mins. | IMDb Rating: 6.7/10
Bikram Hot Yoga is a fad that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Its founder — who has made tens-of-millions of dollars off the practice — is an at-large predator who spent decades sexually assaulting and raping his students, predominately women of color. Yet he’s still not in prison. In fact, he’s living the high-life with his millions still intact.
The documentary follows Bikram Choudhury’s rise to fame in the U.S. throughout the 1970s and 1980s and then takes a turn into the very dark side of his power. There’s a clear feeling of cult leader behavior as Choudhury abuses his female students psychologically, physically, and sexually. Perhaps most amazingly, after Choudhury fled from arrest in the United States, he continues to attract people to his Bikram training seminars in Europe and Mexico to this day, adding to the cult-leader vibe.
Abducted in Plain Sight (2017)
Run Time: 91 mins. | IMDb Rating: 6.8/10
Wow. Where to begin with this documentary? Jan Broberg was abducted twice by the same family friend in her teens. The kicker, the parents of Broberg knew what was going on and let it happen, even dropping charges for the first kidnapping.
That’s only the tip of the shit-show iceberg of this story. The twists and turns this documentary takes in telling the story of how one man could convince two parents that his kidnapping and raping of their 12-year-old daughter — twice — was not a crime has to be seen to be believed and helps illustrate how society’s ingrained trust of the “charming man” continues to fail women and girls.
One of Us (2017)
Run Time: 95 mins. | IMDb Rating: 7.1/10
One of Us follows two former members of Brooklyn’s Hasidic community as they adjust to life outside the neighborhood they grew up in. On the surface, that doesn’t really sound like a true-crime documentary.
But once the documentary dives into why the protagonists left, it becomes clear that heinous crimes are lurking just under the surface. Memories of domestic violence and child sexual abuse emerge and drive a further wedge between those trying to leave the community and those who are trying to keep it together.
Holy Hell (2016)
Run Time: 100 mins. | IMDb Rating: 7.1/10
Speaking of cults, Holy Hell is a bizarre look at the Buddhafield cult and the abuse doled out by its leader, Jamie Gomez, or “Michel” as Gomez prefers his followers to call him. The film is fairly straightforward in how it depicts the cultish behavior. Gradually, as with so many of these stories, Gomez becomes a monster. He starts emotionally abusing his female followers and sexually assaulting his male followers.
The ripple that makes this a unique watch is the insider view of the cult thanks to footage shot by Will Allen, Buddahafield’s main videographer for 22 years. The film offers a sort of behind-the-scenes glimpse inside the everyday life of a very active cult.
Audrie & Daisy (2016)
Run Time: 95 mins. | IMDb Rating: 7.2/10
This documentary should leave you shaken to the core. The rapes of teens Audrie Pott in California and Daisy Coleman and Paige Parkhurst in Missouri, 15, 14, and 13 respectively at the time of their attacks, highlights pretty much everything wrong with, well, everything.
The documentary looks at how a community and social media bullying turned against the young rape victims to protect the perpetrators of these horrific crimes. It’s absolutely baffling. The vitriol and bullying these teens and their parents went through will make your blood boil. One of the most disturbing moments comes when the mayor and sheriff of Coleman’s town says on camera that “Girls have as much culpability” in their own rapes. The horridness doesn’t end there.
Remastered: The Two Killings Of Sam Cooke (2019)
Run Time: 74 mins. | IMDb Rating: 7.2/10
Sam Cooke’s murder was played as a simple robbery by the white authorities at the time. That white-police narrative has become harder and harder to swallow every day since the icon’s untimely death.
This doc takes a deep look at Cooke’s amazing rise to stardom and how he was parlaying his fame into life as an activist for Black rights in America alongside leaders like Malcolm X. If you don’t know anything about Cooke, this is a great look at his life and very dubious murder.
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, the gay community, and the trans community in New York (and across the country). Eventually, the case would be reopened and investigated as a murder, adding a clear 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 while also feeling enraged that her death was written off so quickly by the police.
Run Time: 106 mins. | IMDb Rating: 7.4/10
It’s almost unbelievable that a person could be tried for murder and sentenced to 40 years in prison based on a witness’ dream. Yet here we are. Dream/Killer looks the case of Ryan Ferguson, who received that sentence for a murder he had nothing to with. However, he was implicated in it based on a ridiculously coerced confession to the police.
The backbone of the film follows Ryan’s father, Bill Ferguson, as he spends nearly ten years trying to prove his son’s innocence. If you don’t know the case, go in without knowing how it all ends.
The Fear of 13 (2015)
Run Time: 96 mins. | IMDb Rating: 7.7/10
If you still hold the very flawed idea that everyone in prison is there because they deserve it, you need to watch this doc from the U.K. The story is about Nick Yarris who spent 22 years on death row fighting for his freedom. He didn’t get that freedom until DNA evidence proved his innocence and he was circulated back into society.
The film’s draw is its unique style. The narrative is told with Yarris taking a stage, so-to-speak, and monologuing over atmospheric reshoots of his experiences. It’s an engaging way to flip the script visually on the usual true-crime style, and it’ll hook you right away.
Run Time: 83 mins. | IMDb Rating: 8.1/10
If you haven’t seen 2013’s Blackfish, you might want to do that now. The film has become the seminal testament to the horrors of for-profit captivity of large mammals in amusement parks.
The film follows the story of the captive orca, Tilikum, and the three deaths the orca caused while in captivity at Sealand on the Pacific. The film also features interviews from SeaWorld employees and lays bare the tactics of captive orca breeding. Thankfully, this doc was single-handily responsible for waterparks like SeaWorld losing massive ticket sales. When you watch the doc, you’ll understand why.
LA 92 (2017)
Run Time: 114 mins. | IMDb Rating: 8.2/10
This documentary from National Geographic feels more relevant than ever right now. It takes an un-polished look at how police violence and systemic racism has been tearing Los Angeles — and the nation — apart for a long time before the police beat Rodney King and got away with it.
The film looks at the L.A. Riots of 1992 using archival footage with voice over from actual reports, police scanners, activists, politicians, and people at the time. The doc takes you right there and is so visceral you can feel the heat from the fires and the anger of the people on the streets. This is what happens when the cops and the justice system are the ones committing the crimes and the people just can’t take it anymore.