20 Best History Documentaries to Stream Now
Don't know much about history? These fascinating documentaries are a great way to immerse yourself in events that shaped the world.
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History comes alive
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.
You can choose from documentaries about race, historical figures, true crime, and nearly every era since the beginning of time. Educational and entertaining, these documentaries are essential viewing—the perfect real-life tales to complement the historical fiction books you may have read. Here are our top picks, which you’ll definitely want to put on your must-watch list.
Fifty years after NASA put the first men on the moon, this 2019 history documentary was released to celebrate the essential wonder of that historic space mission, without extraneous commentary. There’s no narration, interviews, or analysis; the film just lets the events unfold to elicit the same sense of awe experienced by everyone who watched them firsthand. Newly discovered 70mm footage and more than 11,000 hours of uncatalogued audio recordings bring the mission to life again. It’s impossible not to be moved and inspired by this feat of human ingenuity, one of few historical predictions that astonishingly came true.
One Child Nation
Some history documentaries make us think about disturbing history facts you’ll wish weren’t really true. In 1979, in an attempt to prevent what officials considered a potential population crisis, the Chinese government instituted a one-child policy. This led to hundreds of thousands of abandoned babies, forced sterilizations, and abortions, with the repercussions still being felt more than a generation later. For many people, this time was a defining, and devastating, period of their lives. It was also (at least to the outside world) a human-rights tragedy and grave ethics violation. This 2019 film, which explores the propaganda that convinced citizens this policy was necessary for the greater good, is made even more personal by the narrator/co-director Nanfu Wang’s own experiences and determination to expose the truth.
You may only be familiar with the ancient Egyptian history of pyramids and lost cities, but more recent events of the country are compelling as well. Nominated for a 2014 Best Documentary Feature Academy Award, and the winner of a host of other awards including three Emmys, The Square immerses viewers in the Egyptian Revolution, beginning in 2011, chronicling the protests and fall of two consecutive presidents. By getting to know the activists involved in what started as the Arab Spring—a time of pro-democracy unrest and non-violent demonstrations—viewers become invested in their cause and understand why the people chose to fight for what they believe in.
This thought-provoking 2016 Oscar-nominated history documentary from director Ava DuVernay is like a crash course in racial inequality, illuminating lies from history you may have been previously taught. The title refers to the 13th Amendment of the Constitution, which made slavery illegal except as punishment for a crime, leading to an unprecedented rise in incarceration among African Americans. DuVernay takes an eye-opening look at the American prison system—with just five percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25 percent of its prisoners—and shows how it became a tool of racial oppression. This should be required viewing for every American, which is why it’s been made available for free for everyone to watch on YouTube, as well as on Netflix.
Out of Many, One
Could you pass the United States citizenship test? It’s harder than you’d think, and this 2018 short documentary follows a diverse group of men and women preparing to take the test. As they reveal the personal reasons this action means so much to them, viewers begin to understand why so many people leave the country of their birth to come to the United States. With immigration topping the news, this is an especially relevant subject, and the documentary humanizes the statistics, putting faces to the numbers. It also provides a valuable look at the history of immigrants in this country, and is a timely reminder of the invaluable contributions they’ve made to America.
Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns
It’s like a virtual trip through the Country Music Hall of Fame. Ken Burns, the master of documentary filmmaking, captures the history of country music in this eight-part, 16-hour series from 2019. Starting with “hillbilly music” and featuring superstars from Hank Williams and Johnny Cash to Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, Burns shows how in many ways the genre has acted as the soundtrack to America’s own historical and cultural changes. Country music has always been about the stories, and this documentary has a big one to tell.
Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art
This has to be one of the most bizarre true stories to become history documentaries, so you don’t have to know anything about the world of high art to find this 2020 film fascinating. Focusing on the most successful forgery ever pulled off, it puts the spotlight on the Knoedler Gallery, the oldest art gallery in New York, and its acquisition of a supposed Mark Rothko painting for a mere $750,000. Although it had no real provenance (the record of ownership that traces an artwork’s origin to help confirm its authenticity), numerous experts determined the piece to be real, and it ended up selling for $5.5 million at auction. But that was just the start of what would turn out to be an $80 million scam. What makes this story so interesting is the questions it raises about what makes a piece of art valuable, even if it’s “fake.”
The Royal House of Windsor
We may never be able to view the 1969 documentary the royal family doesn’t want you to see, but instead, watch this 2017 true-life series on the Windsors, one of the best history documentaries tracing the British royal family over a century. For those obsessed with The Crown, the series looks at how the monarchy has survived through so much change and crises, including Edward VIII’s abdication and the death of Princess Diana. New research, as well as access to family insiders and Windsor Castle’s royal archives, offers a fresh look at the Windsors and their significance to the country and the world.
There are many excellent documentaries about the Holocaust, but this 1982 film was the first to win an Academy Award. Narrated by Orson Welles and Elizabeth Taylor, it provides an overview of this tragic period of history, showing how a thriving Jewish community in pre-war Europe was destroyed by the Nazis, resulting in the systematic murder of six million Jews. The film pays tribute to the victims and the heroes, and it’s still a must-watch: As more time passes since the Holocaust, it’s crucial for younger viewers to learn what happened and never allow it to happen again. After all, Nazi propaganda that led so many bystanders into complacency was one of the biggest lies in history.
This Oscar-nominated 2014 documentary transports viewers to Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where heroic rangers are trying to save the last of the world’s mountain gorillas, some of the rarest animals on earth, from poachers. It introduces viewers to the violent history of this region and discusses the new war between the conservationists, rebel militia, and the company wanting to take control of the land to explore for oil. The film depicts the extremes of human behavior—so much goodness and so much evil—and juxtaposes the steely, man-made weaponry against a backdrop of breathtaking natural landscape. As the filmmakers throw the audience into the middle of the action, you’ll find yourself rooting for the animals and the fragile ecosystem to survive, and will hopefully continue doing your part to ensure this happens long after the movie is over.
The Social Dilemma
It’s almost impossible to remember a world without social media, but this often shocking 2020 documentary delves into recent history to remind you there are people controlling what you see. Why is this a “dilemma”? Just a few reasons the film points out: Sixty-four percent of people who joined extremist groups on Facebook did so because the algorithms steered them there; the number of countries with political disinformation campaigns on Facebook doubled in recent years; and research has found that higher social media usage correlates with self-reported declines in mental and physical health, as well as life satisfaction. This documentary may make you think twice about the way you use social media, what could happen if social media disappeared—and it may even inspire you to delete your accounts.
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution
From 1951 to 1977, Camp Jened in upstate New York was a beloved sleepaway camp where summer romances blossomed and lifelong friendships formed. What made it unique, though, were the campers themselves: They were all kids who had disabilities. Camp Jened was the one place where they felt accepted and like everyone else. That feeling of empowerment led many of them to become activists for the disabled, culminating in the 504 Sit-In of 1977, which ultimately resulted in the groundbreaking Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Nominated for a 2021 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Crip Camp was executive produced by former president Barack Obama and Michelle Obama. It is a powerful reminder of the importance of inclusion, and proof that everyone needs to be recognized for what they can do and helped with what they can’t.
How to Survive a Plague
No, this is not a film about the pandemic, although some of its lessons certainly apply now. It’s the story of the AIDS epidemic and the everyday people with no scientific training who took it upon themselves to find a treatment when the government was shuffling its feet and letting thousands upon thousands die. Through their efforts working inside the pharmaceutical industry, they helped spur the discovery and production of new drugs to make the condition far less deadly. It’s an inspirational story of persistence and grassroots activism that also reveals things people don’t know about HIV and AIDs.
Cuba and the Cameraman
Nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Historical Documentary, this up close and personal look at Cuba is almost like watching a home movie. Director Jon Alpert, the “cameraman” of the title, spent close to five decades traveling back and forth to the country, capturing the changes—and constants—over time, and the 2017 film is his own love letter to its people. Although he does interview Fidel Castro, the film is decidedly non-political, focusing on the trials and tribulations of three Cuban families and captivating us with their stories.
World War II in Colour: Road to Victory
Following the comprehensive 2009 docuseries World War II in Colour narrated by Robert Powell, this newer British import also uses rare footage, state-of-the-art colorization, and newly uncovered documents to bring to life the most pivotal events of World War II. From the Battle of Britain to D-Day, this 2019 documentary series examines not just the strategies and battles, but the devastating toll war takes. The high-definition colorization brings an immediacy to the subject matter, making it feel more current and intense than the original black-and-white footage. It makes you realize a world war is not just something that happened long ago, but something we must do everything in our power to prevent again. Fill in the gaps of World War II events covered in the first doc with the new 2021 series, World War II in Color: Road to Victory. After watching, you’ll be able to answer even the trickiest U.S. war history questions most people never get right.
Chronicling the struggle for LGBTQ+ civil rights in America over the past 70 years, this 2021 docuseries covers pivotal events from FBI surveillance during the 1950s “Lavender Scare” to the Culture Wars of the 1990s and the battle over marriage equality. It also charts the evolution of trans rights and identities over the decades through interviews and archival footage, and (as the best historical documentaries do) makes the crusade personal. In depicting the individual human beings behind the labels society throws around and showing that everyone deserves the same rights, the series can help you become an LGBTQ ally.
Sadly more relevant than ever, this 2001 Oscar-nominated documentary offers an important perspective on the Middle East conflict by looking through the eyes of the children affected by it. The filmmakers bring together seven Israeli and Palestinian kids, and the results are heartwarming. Despite what they’ve grown up being told about the other, they are eager to meet and find connection through the universal language of humanity. Stripped of their “other”-ness, they are simply children, and once they are together, their common interests create a bond that, unfortunately, will be broken by politics. “In a war, both sides suffer,” says one boy. “People on both sides die. Both sides lose.” Out of the mouths of babes.
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry
The women’s liberation movement was born out of “consciousness-raising” groups, which led to many women realizing for the first time that the personal experiences that caused them shame, such as sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence, and abortion, were shockingly universal. This revelation led them to band together to fight for equal pay, reproductive rights, and so many more issues that, once they were actually discussed in public, suddenly seemed obvious in their injustice. Told by those who fueled the movement, this 2014 film on women’s history covers the beginning of the era, from 1966 to 1971, and it’s as smart and complex as they are. It’s also funny—something feminists were inaccurately accused of not being. But what’s sadly most shocking about this documentary is that women are still fighting for many of the same rights half a century later.
Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan
Dynamic reenactments and expert commentary bring to life the tumultuous history and power struggles of a warring 16th-century feudal Japan in this exciting 2021 docuseries, one of the best shows on Netflix right now. Although there’s lots of swordplay, it’s all put into historical context as historians narrate the events, explaining unfamiliar terms and concepts. It’s a great introduction for those who want to learn more about the samurai.
Covering everything from fast food to plastics to the rise of China, this fact-filled 2020 docuseries features bite-sized bits of history in easy-to-digest 20-minute segments: They’re like many tiny history documentaries in one. You’ll learn so much about a variety of subjects, giving you an edge in any trivia competition—not to mention helping you become a more educated citizen of the world. Each fascinating segment raises as many questions as it answers, making it excellent fodder for discussion on historical moments that never happened the way you thought.