Last Updated: August 23rd
In case you were somehow unaware:
- The world isn’t just made up of good guys and bad guys.
- People in jail didn’t necessarily commit the crimes for which they were convicted…
- but some of them did.
- Also, there are people who did commit horrifying atrocities walking amongst us.
- Criminal activity isn’t innate and doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
- The economy intersects with the justice system.
These statements are all valid, though the world would be so much simpler if they weren’t. We wouldn’t have to wrestle with the complex network of moral considerations that this list of documentaries relies on as its impetus. And we’d never find ourselves sympathizing with murderers or furious at victims.
As it stands, the list below is made up of some of the most nuanced, complicated, often painful-to-watch crime documentaries on Netflix. Each of them is a quality film with complex subject matter and compelling human interest. There are no easy answers offered, but there’s still plenty to keep you watching.
Roll Red Roll
Run Time: 80 min | IMDb: 7.1/10
In August 2012, there was no escaping the horror of what came to be known as the Steubenville High School rape case. A drunk high school girl was undressed, photographed, and sexually assaulted by her peers who then documented the acts all over social media. This documentary investigates the case with a particular focus on true crime blogger Alexandra Goddard who first brought prominent attention to the events. This is not an easy watch because of the subject matter and the explicitness with which it is presented, but it is essential to discussions of consent and the way that our society treats victims of rape.
The Seven Five
Run Time: 104 min | IMDb: 7.6/10
When 10-year veteran New York City police officer Michael Dowd was arrested in 1992, it brought about one of the biggest police corruption scandals in the history of the city. This movie examines these events and the dirty dealings of the 75th precinct, which was considered one of the most treacherous police departments during the 1980s. Working in a department that had one of the highest murder rates in the country at the time, Dowd felt he wasn’t getting his due emotionally or financially, so he began taking bribes from drug dealers. It wasn’t long before he was protecting a cartel leader and actively robbing dealers at gunpoint. Watching this develop is fascinating.
Freeway: Crack in the System
Run Time: 103 min | IMDb: 7.1/10
Freeway Rick Ross was one of the most prominent drug kingpins of the 1980s, and this film details his life of crime, his imprisonment, and his rehabilitation. Viewers also get the story of rapper Rick Ross’ appropriation of his name and persona to legitimize his music with drug and crime cred. Also included is the alleged role of the C.I.A. in transporting narcotics to the United States in order to line the pockets of the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
The film is rich in stories, and it can get a bit confusing at times to follow the many, many plot elements. However, it never stops being riveting.
Out of Thin Air
Run Time: 85 min | IMDb: 6.5/10
You probably don’t know Iceland has a “most notorious murder case,” but it most certainly does. In 1974, two unrelated men disappeared and were never found. At the time, Iceland was a pastoral idyll, and the nation was rocked by the crimes and the subsequent trials. Though six people ended up going to prison, they allege their confessions were the result of lengthy, intensive interrogations.
This is a dark, moody doc with a lot of information, but no clean resolution.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
Run Time: 123 min | IMDb: 6.3/10
In 1992, Marsha P. Johnson was found floating in the Hudson River. The police declared it a suicide, but friends of the trans activist rejected that entirely. This film is set up as a mystery, using activist Victoria Cruz as a detective and a stand-in for the audience. While trying to find out whodunit, the film does a great job of celebrating Johnsons’ impact on the LGBT community and her lasting political legend.
Run Time: 92 min | IMDb: 7.0/10
Right now, the crime doc section is heavy on television shows and light on films. Among the few films are Netflix Originals, like this one. Amanda Knox was twice convicted and later acquitted of the murder of her roommate Meredith Kercher. The film recounts the murder, as well as the investigation, trials, and appeals. There are times when the viewer will want more information — what were Knox’s sexual practices that came under such scrutiny from Italian investigators, why was she so affectionate with her boyfriend at the crime scene — but the running time doesn’t allow for every detail of the case to be covered.
It does, however, do a fine job of highlighting places where the investigators and journalists fumbled.
Run Time: 121 min | IMDb: 8.0/10
This is one of those films that intended to be one thing and turned out to be a completely different, much better thing. Filmmaker Bryan Fogel wanted to show how easy it is to dope in competitive cycling without being caught. As part of his efforts, he met with Grigory Rodchenkov, the truly bizarre director of Moscow’s Anti-Doping Centre. As filming continued, Rodchenkov got comfortable and began laying out all of the underhanded methods he used to help Russian athletes take home gold at the Sochi Winter Olympics.
Things just get stranger from there.
Audrie & Daisy
Run Time: 95 min | IMDb: 7.2/10
Some crime docs are exciting because they are about heists or murders. Then, there are the ones about rape. Audrie & Daisy is the story of three cases of sexual assault, with the focus on Audrie Pott and Daisy Coleman, who were 15 and 14 respectively at the time of their attacks. The documentary shows the aftermath of the incidents, including the police investigations, court records, and social media postings. The extent of the bullying that occurred once their respective towns closed ranks to protect the young men accused of these crimes is astounding.
This isn’t an easy watch, but it also isn’t provocative for the sake of being provocative.
Run Time: 85 min | IMDb: 7.3/10
Wine collector Rudy Kurniawan had a taste for wine, particular burgundy. After spending years of his life, along with millions of dollars, on his collection, it was eventually revealed that he’d been defrauding his fellow collectors, taking old bottles and refilling them with lesser wine before forging a new label. After his scam was revealed, he became the first person sentenced to prison for wine fraud.
Wild Wild Country
Run Time: 65 min | IMDb: 8.3/10
A look into the bizarre life of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, also known as Osho, a cult leader with a significant following in 1980s Oregon. What started as an idyllic community based on principles of sharing and compassion was soon the subject of ire around the local townspeople, who viewed the cult as evil. As forces mounted to deal with Osho’s followers, the compound’s residents soon take up arms themselves in order to defend their way of life.
Run Time: 80 min | IMDb: 6.1/10
Casting Jonbenet follows the casting for a fictional film about the unsolved 1996 killing of six-year-old American child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey in her family home in Boulder, Colorado. A variety of local actors participate in interviews and test for the roles of the principal players in the original case. During this process, the “actors” share their feelings and reflections about the case, highlighting the mythologies that surround the case as well as the power of shared memory.
Abducted in Plain Sight
Run Time: 91 min | IMDb: 6.8/10
On one hand, you need to watch this immediately before all of your friends spoil it for you. On the other, it’s not an easy watch. The documentary focuses on the Brobergs, an Idaho family that allows a man into their lives who is obsessed with their young daughter Jan. He does end up abducting Jan for a month when she is 12, which the viewer knows is going to happen from the title.
There are at least a half dozen other completely bonkers revelations, including a second abduction. And that’s just the beginning of how odd this one gets.
Run Time: 40 min | IMDb: 7.4/10
Did you know a man cleared himself of murder charges using an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm in 2004? He sure did, and this is the doc that details the case of Juan Catalan, who was accused of the execution-style slaying of 16-year-old Marth Puebla who was a witness in his brother’s murder trial. The show shot footage at the Atlanta Braves game where Catalan and his daughter were at the time of Puebla’s murder, but there’s a lot more to the story than just that.
The Fear of 13
Run Time: 96 min | IMDb: 7.7/10
The Fear of 13 is a one-man show of sorts that uses a non-linear style to tell the story of Nick Yarris, a man who was convicted of murder and spent 21 years on death row before being released in 2004 when DNA evidence cleared him of all charges. Yarris does all the narrating, which is a bit unusual for a documentary, but it makes the narrative all the more powerful. He covers his life from childhood to death row, but expect both twists and turns that keep viewers engaged and wondering.
ReMastered: Who Killed Jam Master Jay?
Run Time: 58 min | IMDb: 6.3/10
In 2002, Jam Master Jay was fatally shot in a recording studio in Queens. To date, the murder remains unsolved. This documentary looks at the major players in the case and the circumstances of the killing by interviewing family, friends, and acquaintances who detail what they know and have heard about the murder. If you are expecting the film to answer the question posed by the title, think again. Theories are floated but no definitive answer is provided.