What is a Documentary?

documentary film or documentary is a non-fictional motion-picture intended to “document reality, primarily for the purposes of instruction, education or maintaining a historical record“.[1]Bill Nichols has characterized the documentary in terms of “a filmmaking practice, a cinematic tradition, and mode of audience reception [that remains] a practice without clear boundaries”.[2] from Wikipedia.

I wasn’t always interested in watching documentaries. I rarely watch documentaries on the History channel or the Discovery channel. Still, I occasionally look into the documentary films nominated for an Academy Award and maybe watch a few famous award-winning documentaries.

Looking at this list from a 2013 New York magazine article, The 20 Essential Documentaries of the Century, I have seen several of these films. (cover image from New York Magazine)

My interest in documentaries grew in the past few years as more documentary series have been released on streaming services and cable channels. Maybe it’s because I include documentaries in my what to watch section of my newsletter, but I had watched some great films and series before I started writing about them.

As an avid book reader, television show binger, and movie viewer, I love stories that entertain and educate me. Documentaries provide entertainment and history lessons and let people tell their stories.

I’m fascinated by the creators of these films and series. Some creators take risks when filming extreme sporting events, and some take risks talking about popular famous people.

The number of documentary films and series available to watch is too high to share them all, but here are the top reasons why I watch documentaries with a few suggestions on what to watch:


I think documentaries are the greatest way to educate an entire generation that doesn’t often look back to learn anything about the history that provided a safe haven for so many of us today.” – Steven Spielberg

Many documentary films (and series) cover topics that are not taught in school or are briefly covered.

From Reader’s Digest, 20 Best History Documentaries to Stream Now. “They say unless we learn from it, history repeats itself. Luckily, these history documentaries, which cover the wars, politics, culture, and events that led us to where we are now, can open your mind to the happenings of the past. These films, many of which are award winners, bring history to life and relate it to current events. They provide valuable context, putting the present in perspective and helping us prepare for the future. Perhaps even better? They can be streamed at your convenience.”

Historical Documentaries on Netflix:

On PBS, 179 History Documentaries You Can Watch Right Now (No Membership Required)

Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street – (film, stream on HBOmax) From CNN documentary film: “Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street” is a new documentary that explores the history of Black Wall Street and the violent events of late May and June 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that resulted in the slaughter of hundreds of the city’s African American residents. I first learned about these events while watching Watchmen on HBO in 2019. The 1921 Tulsa massacre was featured in the beginning of the series. I immediately searched google and found out actual events inspired the scene. The CNN documentary came out later in 2021, and I had to learn more from the people who lived in Tulsa. If you haven’t heard about these events, please take time to read about them here,

The Last Days – (film, stream on Netflix) From IMDb: “In late 1944, even as they faced imminent defeat, the Nazis expended enormous resources to kill or deport over 425,000 Jews during the “cleansing” of Hungary. This Oscar-winning documentary, executive produced by Steven Spielberg, focuses on the plight of five Hungarian Jews who survived imprisonment in Auschwitz. Though these survivors recount the horrors they witnessed and endured as a result of the Nazis’ “Final Solution,” their individual triumphs are a testament to hope and humanity.

From Netflix: Activist and scholar Angela Davis in 13th.

13th – (film, stream on Netflix). “Filmmaker Ava DuVernay explores the history of racial inequality in the United States, focusing on the fact that the nation’s prisons are disproportionately filled with African-Americans.” From Netflix Tudum, “Your reasons to watch: You’re interested in stories about social justice, specifically the intersection of issues plaguing a forgotten American population, including racism, the justice system and how much (or little) the country has changed since the abolition of slavery.


As I’ve mentioned on my blog, I have a strong interest in Science and shows and movies that teach us about our environment, living things, and the Earth.

Our Planet – (series, stream on Netflix) From Tudum, “The story: In a vast landscape of nature documentary series, Our Planet rules supreme. Narrated by David Attenborough, it addresses issues of conservation and climate change against breathtaking footage of wildlife in a fascinating range of natural habitats around the world, including the deep sea, the Arctic, the jungles of South and Central America, the plains of Africa and more.”

March of the Penguins (2005) – “This boffo French doc about ­Antarctic penguins is a ­triumph of ­location, location, location. It’s the story of an instinct so primal that the movie feels like a creation saga. You watch these ­funny, stubborn little creatures and contemplate the ­endurance of all life.” (D.E.)

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)“Like a molasses-voiced prophet of the apocalypse, Al Gore presents the case for climate change, and chills you to your bones. With one fell swoop, director Davis Guggenheim helped resurrect Gore’s image (remember when we all thought he couldn’t give a decent speech?), put climate change at the forefront of public discourse, and made the hero-driven social-issue doc the premier mode of American nonfiction filmmaking.” (B.E.)

Super Size Me (2004) – “Morgan Spurlock got fat and depressed after a month of chowing down ­exclusively on McDonald’s—but his sacrifice inspired other docs starring guinea pigs (No Impact Man among them) and paved the way for other anti–Big Food screeds. Even better: So disastrous was Super Size Me for McDonald’s image that the chain was forced to discontinue their titular trough-size offerings.” (M.S.)

Noteworthy Accomplishments:

Human beings are capable of great things; we can push our bodies to physical limits and find ways to highlight our strengths.

Edge of the Earth (4 part series on HBOmax), “A four-part documentary series from HBO and Teton Gravity Research, Edge of the Earth follows four groups of elite action-adventure athletes embarking on never-before-accomplished missions. Taking place around the globe — within awe-inspiring, undiscovered realms of nature — each installment of the series features a different team of adventurers journeying into the wild to take on incredible endeavors of physical prowess and mental fortitude.” 

Souce: 10 Best Documentary Feature Oscar Winners, According to Rotten Tomatoes

Man on a Wire – (film) “Man on Wire is one of the greatest films ever made. The film focuses on Philippe Petit’s daring high-wire cross between the Twin Towers in New York City on August 7, 1974. Petit performed eight passes between the towers that morning and James Marsh’s 2008 documentary builds up to that moment and makes it exhilarating. Man on Wire is structured like a heist movie, keeping the tension high even if viewers know what will happen in the end.”

Free Solo – (film) “Free Solo is about rock climber Alex Honnold’s quest to climb El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without assistance. The then 32-year-old became the first person to ever accomplish the feat. Free Solo captures almost every moment of the triumphant climb and several test climbs in Utah and Morocco. The film is partly about its creation, as directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi frequently discuss how to make the movie while not endangering Honnold’s life in the process.

When We Were Kings – (film) “When We Were Kings took 22 years to finally see the light of day. Released in 1996, the film was shot at the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” heavyweight boxing championship match between undefeated champion George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. The film pays particular attention to the mind games Ali played with the people of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), bringing them to his side rather than Foreman’s.

20 Feet From Stardom (film), “Documentarian Morgan Neville’s breakout feature focuses on the lives of influential backing singers such as Merry Clayton (who provided the iconic backing vocals for the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”), Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, and Judith Hill. The film also features interviews with the artists the featured singers have worked with in their careers, including Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Wonder.

Spellbound – (film on Cinemax) “This documentary follows 8 teens and pre-teens as they work their way toward the finals of the Scripps Howard national spelling bee championship in Washington D.C. All work quite hard and practice daily, first having to win their regional championship before they can move on. Interviews include the parents and teachers who are working with them. The competitors not only work hard to get to the finals but face tremendous pressure as the original group of over 250 competitors is whittled down and the words they must spell get ever more difficult.

Famous People and Their Stories

It’s always interesting to take a peak into the life of a famous person and hear stories from them and their friends and family.

From BuzzFeed, Ranking 25 Pop Star Documentaries From Worst To Best

Photo illustration: Hartley Mellick; Everett Collection (Netflix, Paramount Pictures, Apple TV+, Christie Goodwin / Sony Pictures Releasing), Getty Images (Gilbert Carrasquillo, Kevin Mazur)

From BuzzFeed: 21 Fascinating Documentaries About Famous People That’ll Teach You A Thing Or Two About Your Favorite Celebrities

What Happened, Miss Simone? – (film on Netflix) From Tudum, “This film documents the complex life of American singer Nina Simone, who became a civil rights activist in the ’60s and subsequently moved to Liberia. The film uses never-before-heard recordings of the singer, as well as archival footage and audio of her best-known songs.” 

Tina – (film on HBOmax) “With a wealth of never-before-seen footage, audio tapes, personal photos, and new interviews, including with the singer herself, TINA presents an unvarnished and dynamic account of the life and career of music icon Tina Turner. Everything changed when Tina began telling her story, a story of trauma and survival, that gave way to a rebirth as the record-breaking queen of rock ‘n’ roll. But behind closed doors, the singer struggled with the survivor narrative that meant her past was never fully behind her.BuzzFeed

Exit Through the Gift Shop – (film) “Graffiti guerrilla Banksy’s brilliant feature-length pranksy shows how far you can go in blurring the lines between real and fabricated and make a doc that works either way—that has its own satiric truth.”  (D.E.)

The Princess – (original documentary on HBOmax 8/13/22)The story of Princess Diana is told exclusively through contemporaneous archive creating a bold and immersive narrative of her life and death.” From Rotton Tomatoes

Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy (2017 film on HBOmax) “Diana, Our Mother features interviews with Prince William and Prince Harry, both of whom talk openly about their mother and pay tribute to the many ways her influence has shaped their lives. The film offers a fresh and revealing insight into Princess Diana through the personal and intimate reflections of her two sons and her friends and family, many of whom have never spoken publicly before, to bring together a unique portrait of an iconic person who touched the lives of millions. Prince William and Prince Harry share some of their earliest memories of their mother, recall the final conversation they had with her before her tragic death in August 1997, and discuss their feelings in the aftermath of losing her. The documentary also celebrates the achievements of Diana’s work and her sons’ determination to continue the campaigns that were closest to her heart.

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind (2018 film on HBOmax). From BuzzFeed, “A funny, intimate, and heartbreaking portrait of one of the world’s most beloved and inventive comedians, Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind is told largely through Williams’ own words, and celebrates what he brought to comedy and to the culture at large, from the wild days of late-1970s L.A. to his death in 2014. The film explores his extraordinary life and career, revealing what drove him to give voice to the characters in his mind. With previously unheard and unseen glimpses into his creative process through interviews with Williams, as well as home movies and onstage footage, this insightful tribute features in-depth interviews with those who knew and loved him, including Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, and his son, Zak Williams.”

To Shed Light on the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (and let people tell their stories):

I think it’s important to let people tell their stories, especially if these stories can help other people.

Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops – (film on HBOmax) From HBO, “Texas police officers Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro are putting compassionate policing practices into action. This documentary chronicles how these officers—both members of the San Antonio Police Department’s ten-person mental health unit—use an innovative approach to policing to diffuse dangerous situations and divert people from jail into mental health treatment.

Allen v. Farrow – (HBOmax) “The four-part documentary series Allen v. Farrow, from award-winning investigative filmmakers Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering and Amy Herdy, goes behind the years of sensational headlines to reveal the private story of one of Hollywood’s most notorious and public scandals: the accusation of sexual abuse against Woody Allen involving Dylan, his then 7-year-old daughter with Mia Farrow; their subsequent custody trial; the revelation of Allen’s relationship with Farrow’s daughter, Soon-Yi; and the controversial aftermath in the years that followed.

The Cannonball Loop water slide, one of the former attractions of a water park highlighted in the documentary “Class Action Park.”Credit…HBO Max

Class Action Park – (film on HBOmax), “Grab your swimsuit, buckle up, and keep your hands and feet inside the ride at all times! Except if you’re at Action Park, the notoriously dangerous and chaotic – but wickedly fun – 1980s New Jersey water and amusement park that long ago entered the realm of myth (and gave perhaps less thought to safety measures). Class Action Park explores the legend, legacy, and truth behind the world’s most insane amusement park. Featuring a wealth of newly unearthed and never-before-seen documents and recordings, original animation, and interviews with the people who lived it and loved it, this 90-minute, nostalgia-packed documentary reveals the shocking true story behind Action Park.

Athlete A – (film on Netflix) “Athlete A follows a team of investigative journalists from The Indianapolis Star as they broke the troubling story of sexual abuse allegations within USA Gymnastics. The title refers to Maggie Nichols, referred to at the time as “Athlete A” to protect her identity while authorities investigated USA Gymnastics doctor, Larry Nassar. The film alleges that Steve Penny, the former USAG president, did not report abusive coaches during his tenure.” Tudum

We Need to Talk About Cosby – (4 part series on Showtime) “Writer/director W. Kamau Bell’s exploration of Bill Cosby’s descent from “America’s Dad” to alleged sexual predator. Comedians, journalists and Cosby survivors have a candid, first of its kind conversation about the man, his career and his crimes.

A group of Playboy Bunnies line up for inspection by Hugh Hefner. (Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

Secrets of Playboy – (12 part series on A&E), “The documentary event “Secrets of Playboy” explores the hidden truths behind the fable and philosophy of the Playboy empire through a modern-day lens. The series delves into the complex world Hugh Hefner created and examines its far-reaching consequences on our culture’s view of power and sexuality.

Inside Job (2010 film) – “It could be said that what happened during the 2008 financial crisis was too complex to depict compellingly on film. Documentarian Charles Ferguson begs to disagree, taking it to the culprits in this passionate indictment of the greed and egomania that helped sink the world economy, and even skewering his on-camera interview subjects.” (B.E.)

Catfish (2010 film) -“The name is now synonymous with online mis­representation—and there are still some folks who doubt the veracity of Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost’s ­influential doc. But if the ­video-diary format does lend itself to subjects who are acting instead of being, the movie still works as a story of ­isolation, deception, and finally connection in our strange new Internet-oriented world.” (D.E.)

Icarus – (film on Netflix) “The story: Icarus starts as a first-person exploration of doping in sports: Director Bryan Fogel is an amateur cyclist who starts a doping routine that includes injecting hormones and other performance enhancements. However, when Fogel connects with Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, head of the Russian anti-doping program, a larger scandal begins to unfold. Rodchenkov becomes an international whistleblower who draws attention to an Olympic doping scandal.” 

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution – (film on Netflix) “The story: Crip Camp tells the story of Camp Jened in 1971, a groundbreaking summer camp for teenagers with disabilities. The film focuses on a group of Camp Jened campers who become activists in the disability rights movement, fighting for accessibility legislation and to make public spaces more inclusive.” 

In my post about scammers and con artists, I wrote about more documentary series,

Here is a list some trending documentary series to discuss at your next social gathering:

  • Generation Hustle 10-episode documentary series on HBOmax
  • The Tinder Swindler series on Netflix
  • Worst Roommate Ever series on Netflix
  • Bad Vegan series on Netflix
  • Trainwreck: Woodstock ‘99 3 series on Netflix
  • The Anarchists series on HBOmax
  • Our Father series on Netflix

More lists to check out from the Thrillist, The Best Documentaries on Amazon Prime

On Netflix, 9 Thought-Provoking Documentaries to Watch

2 responses to “Documentaries”

  1. […] The number of documentary films and series available to watch is too high to share them all, but in my recent blog post, I’ve shared the top reasons why I watch documentaries with a few suggestions on what to watch: […]

  2. […] I watched a lot of documentaries this year and enjoyed the content that included dramatic stories and called attention to problematic situations. Read my documentary post: […]

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