- Netflix has produced a range of original documentaries that dive deep into American history, filling gaps left by the educational system.
- The best American history documentaries on Netflix cover a diverse range of topics beyond just American history, including music, politics, feminism, and civil rights.
- These documentaries shed light on important events and figures in American history, offering new perspectives and uncovering untold stories.
Netflix is known for its extensive library of documentaries available, and the streaming service is home to some of the best American history documentaries. While known for its production of true crime and music-based documentaries, the streaming service deserves more credit for its efforts in detailing important events in American history. For those who want to learn about American history more in-depth than in the classroom, or learn about the country’s fascinating formation for the first time, Netflix has produced many original documentaries to suit all viewers.
The best documentaries on Netflix cover a wide variety of topics, and American history isn’t the only subject that’s included. When compared to the rest of the world, American history is a relatively short subject, and over the years those who live in the States and have taken part in these obligatory classes have found coverage on the subject lacking. As research continues and biases are coming under scrutiny, the best American history documentaries have stepped up to fill in the gaps created by the educational system.
The Anthrax Attacks: In The Shadow Of 9/11 (2022)
9/11 is one of the most widely covered events in contemporary American history, but few remember that shortly after the attacks the nation was plagued with fear over anthrax that was being sent through the postal service to unwitting victims. This is what one of the best American history documentaries seeks to explore, as the 2001 anthrax attacks were one of the most complicated cases in FBI history. The Anthrax Attacks: In the Shadow of 9/11 deftly chronicles the case from start to finish using a mixture of personal interviews with those involved and news footage.
Crack: Cocaine, Corruption & Conspiracy (2021)
This no-holds-barred documentary takes on the cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and details how its spread devastated many inner-city communities in one of the best American history documentaries. The film highlights that unlike rising drug experimentation in American culture previously, crack cocaine created far greater highs and more devastating lows than any other substance that existed before. The documentary does a particularly good job of highlighting how racism was used by US politicians to excuse non-intervention in the epidemic. It also offers some highly convincing theories on how the drug was channeled into the country with permission from various authorities.
Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali (2021)
Blood Brothers tells the story of the friendship between Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali and their eventual fallout in one of the best American History documentaries. The documentary details how the pair bonded thanks to their role as civil rights leaders and membership of the Nation of Islam, as well as the forces that drove them apart. With exclusive archival footage and access to interviews with close friends and family of both parties, this documentary offers a new, in-depth look at the breakdown of a relationship between two of American history’s most influential men.
ReMastered: Tricky Dick And The Man In Black (2018)
One of the best American history documentaries details the music and political ideology of country music superstar Johnny Cash, leading up to his famous meeting with President Richard Nixon in April 1970. With interviews from family members and close friends in the music business, the film shows a side of Cash never seen before. The film expertly analyzes why country music is strongly associated with conservatism, while at the same time drawing attention to Cash’s often-secret life as a campaigner for Vietnam soldiers and Native American civil rights. It also highlights Cash’s shortcomings as a campaigner for a refreshingly honest watch.
The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson chronicles the life and untimely death of activist Marsha P. Johnson, a black trans woman and foundational part of the modern LGBTQ+ pride movement. One of the best American history documentaries follows fellow activist and contemporary of Johnson’s, Victoria Cruz, and her investigation into her death. While the film makes no certain conclusions on Marsha P. Johnson’s death, the documentary draws attention to how institutional and social homophobia and transphobia played a role in Johnson’s death and its investigation. For those unaware of Johnson’s story, this documentary is one of many essential movies to watch during Pride Month.
Get Me Roger Stone (2017)
Political strategist Roger Stone has been a foundation of victories in the Republican Party since the days of Richard Nixon’s election in 1968 but only garnered national attention under his work with Donald Trump in 2016. Get Me Roger Stone is one of the best American history documentaries and explores how one man became essential to conservative politics and the laws Stone broke in the process. Get Me Roger Stone brings light to a political heavyweight in conservative politics that many viewers were likely unaware of. The film’s ability to bridge connections between Stone’s role in previous political campaigns to his role in modern controversies makes for a compelling watch.
Amend: The Fight For America (2021)
Will Smith and a host of other famous faces in one of the best American history documentaries present a journey through the history of the 14th Amendment – the amendment that granted citizenship to all persons born in the United States. Each episode chronicles the use of the amendment to fight for civil rights for America’s most marginalized voices. Amend is one of the best projects produced by Will Smith. Each celebrity presenter in the series utilizes their talents to tell the tale of America’s often unsung heroes in the fight for citizen rights, playing various roles to bring a multi-faceted look at the history of the 14th Amendment.
Crip Camp (2020)
Crip Camp tells the unlikely tale of how a rural camp aimed at disabled teenagers in the 1970s, known as Camp Jened, became the base for the disability rights movement, leading to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. The documentary follows the camp’s former participants as they return to the site and recall the fight for civil rights that they participated in. This Oscar-nominated film is one of the very best Netflix documentaries. The meaningful representation presented in the documentary offers an example of how equality is always possible, even in the face of incredible odds.
Challenger: The Final Flight (2020)
One of the best American history documentaries details the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster in 1986, where all seven astronauts were killed after the Challenger shuttle exploded shortly into its flight. The documentary details the shortcomings of some NASA staffers and the technical failures that caused the disaster. While the Challenger tragedy is well known, The Final Flight gives rare insight into the Challenger astronauts beyond their deaths in the run-up to the disaster. Although the documentary details a tragic event, there is a poignant celebration of the lives of the flight crew who were dedicated to the mission.
Bobby Kennedy For President (2018)
One of the best American history documentaries chronicles the last years of Robert F. Kennedy in the aftermath of his brother, President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, leading to his own assassination in 1968 during his Presidential campaign. The series explores what made RFK a unique politician and considers what could’ve been. Bobby Kennedy For President is one of Netflix’s most moving documentaries, with its emphasis on how modern his presidential campaign was and how it would have fared today. One especially touching episode features the young busboy, Juan Romero, who tended to a dying Kennedy, being celebrated at a school in Kennedy’s honor, before his own death shortly after filming.
Ava DuVernay’s masterpiece documentary explains the direct line between slavery and the mass incarceration of African Americans that still exists today in one of the best American history documentaries, all tied together by the 13th Amendment. The 13th Amendment was the article that abolished slavery or involuntary servitude, except for as a punishment for a crime. This documentary is essential viewing for those looking for a greater understanding of how institutional racism occurs in America by drawing back to its historical roots. Its use of statistics, historical documentation, and interviews from key figures of the Civil Rights Movement create a feature of enormous historical significance.
Descendant is fascinating and one of the best American history documentaries as it focuses on the descendants of the Clotilda, the last known slave ship that was used to illegally take people from Africa to America. The documentary is set in the small community of Africatown, Alabama, and uses personal interviews with the residents as they recount stories of the abhorrent treatment of their ancestors. The ship itself is revealed by a team of marine archeologists in the documentary, adding a degree of depth to the story and reminding viewers that these atrocities took place not that long ago.
The Battered Bastards Of Baseball (2014)
One of the best American history documentaries is also a sports documentary chronicling one underdog team to victory. Baseball is often coined as a great American pastime, and The Battered Bastards of Baseball chronicles Hollywood star Bing Russell’s creation of the very first independent baseball team, the Portland Mavericks. Set in 1973, the documentary utilizes interviews and footage from the time, along with a special appearance from his famous son Kurt Russell, to tell Bing Russell’s story of triumph as he took his affiliation-less team from unknowns to stardom.
9to5: The Story of a Movement (2019)
While there are plenty of great documentaries about feminism on the market, 9to5: The Story of a Movement doubles as one of the best American history documentaries. The 1970s gave rise to second-wave feminism, focusing on reproductive rights and fair treatment in the workplace. One particular campaign fought against abuse from male bosses upon their female colleagues — and this sparked an entire feature film starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton. The documentary chronicles both the movement and the movie it inspired, as well as Parton’s catchy tune.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (2019)
Toni Morrison is one of the most celebrated contemporary authors, and audiences are assuredly wondering why she didn’t get a documentary much sooner. In one of the best American history documentaries, Morrison reflects on her own life as a storyteller while others explore the powerful themes found in her works like Sula, The Bluest Eye, and Song of Solomon. Morrison recounts what it was like growing up as a Black woman in Lorain, Ohio, and attending Harvard in the 50s in this meditative piece. The documentary is critically acclaimed and ended up winning several awards.
Who We Are: A Chronicle Of Racism In America (2021)
Lawyer Jeffrey Robinson leads the way in one of the best American history documentaries, Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America. Robinson goes on an incredibly deep dive and utilizes a variety of mediums, including interviews, lectures, and personal stories, to chronicle anti-Black racism in America from its earliest beginnings up to the current time. Robinson skewers the idea that audiences are living in a post-racial America using compounding evidence of the contrary throughout. It’s stark and uncomfortable, but nevertheless a very important watch.
Is That Black Enough For You?!? (2022)
Blaxploitation is a genre all its own, and one of the best American history documentaries covers Black cinema over the ages, with a special focus on Blaxsploitation, with special appearances from stars like Laurence Fishburne, Samuel L. Jackson, and Whoopi Goldberg. Utilizing interviews and archival footage from those who have played a big role in the movement, Is that Black Enough For You?!? primarily covers what’s known as the golden era of Black filmmaking, identified in the documentary as 1968 to 1978. The documentary is a great survey of Black cinema through the ages.
Camp Confidential: America’s Secret Nazis (2021)
One of the shortest documentaries on Netflix is also one of the best American history documentaries. Camp Confidential: America’s Secret Nazis is a tight 36 minutes and utilizes animated sequences and interviews to tell its compelling story. The narrative covers a secret P.O.W. camp near Washington D.C. that remained classified for 50 years and was home to some of the top Nazi scientists of World War II. As Jewish refugees are tasked with guarding the camp, they soon realize who they are protecting and then further burdened with keeping them happy.
The Martha Mitchell Effect (2022)
There are a lot of great documentaries on Netflix about American politics, and former President Richard Nixon is a frequent subject. However, one of the best American history documentaries covers not Nixon, but one of his most famous detractors who was silenced. Martha Mitchell was the wife of a Republican cabinet member, and she became one of the most famous unlikely whistleblowers during the Watergate scandal. Using archival footage, The Martha Mitchell Effect tells her story and the Nixon administration’s countless attempts to psychologically subdue her.