10 of the Best History Documentaries on Netflix

gif of 3 different documentary movie posters

Graphic by Cristina Cianci

Whether or not history is doomed to repeat itself, there is always something valuable to learn from the past. Thanks to Netflix, finding information about historical figures and events has never been easier (or more captivating). A quick search for historical documentaries on the site will provide you with a variety of films on everything from world history and wars to social movements and inspirational people.

You can learn about drag culture in New York City during the '80s, the women's movement of the '60s, the Los Angeles riots, and the fascinating crimes that were committed in the Great British castles. Grab some popcorn and log in to Netflix, because brushing up on history has never been so entertaining.

01 of 15

Paris is Burning

paris is burning

Academy Entertainment 

Take a look at the world of Harlem drag balls in Paris Is Burning. This Sundance Grand Jury Prize–winning historical documentary follows the lives of drag queens living in New York City during the '80s and the "houses" they created during this time as a way to form a community. Directed by Jennie Livingston, the film offers a unique view of race, class, gender, and sexuality through the lens of the intense competitions that were a part of this culture.

Available on: Netflix

02 of 15

13th

13th

Netflix

Named after the 13th Amendment, which freed slaves and prohibited slavery, the film takes a critical look at how slavery has been perpetuated in America long after this amendment went into place.

Ava DuVernay, director of Selma and A Wrinkle in Time, is the creator behind 13th, a documentary about race and mass incarceration in America. Named after the 13th Amendment, which freed slaves and prohibited slavery, the film takes a critical look at how slavery has been perpetuated in America long after this amendment went into place.

Available on: Netflix

03 of 15

Five Came Back

five came back

Netflix

A mini-documentary series, Five Came Back tells the story of five Hollywood filmmakers who enlisted in the armed forces to document World War II. Their work is analyzed by five contemporary film directors—Paul Greengrass, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, and Lawrence Kasdan—and all the archival footage featured in the documentary is narrated by Meryl Streep. If you're a fan of Old Hollywood, this film should be on your watch list.

Available on: Netflix

04 of 15

Hiroshima: The Real History

hiroshima

 BBC

Decades after the first atomic bomb altered the course of history, the documentary Hiroshima closely examines the events leading up to and after the 1945 Hiroshima bombing. The BBC film tells the story of this historical event through detailed commentary, giving viewers a sense of what it was like to experience the horrific act that defined World War II.

Available on: Netflix

05 of 15

What Happened, Miss Simone?

what happened, miss simone

Netflix 

This film follows the life of American singer, pianist, and civil rights activist Nina Simone. Through never-before-heard recordings and rare archival footage, director Liz Garbus chronicles the life of the legendary woman in What Happened, Miss Simone?

Available on: Netflix

06 of 15

Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo

mission control

Haviland Digital 

Transport yourself back to the space race by watching Mission Control. The documentary explores the dangerous Apollo space missions, which resulted in the tragic Apollo 1 fire and the extraordinary moon landing. Featuring testimonies from Apollo astronauts and contemporary NASA flight directors, the documentary provides a deep understanding of one of the largest accomplishments in American history.

Available on: Netflix

07 of 15

Let It Fall

let it fall

Lincoln Square Productions 

A portrait of the building tensions between African Americans and the Los Angeles Police Department during the '80s and early '90s, Let It Fall provides a look at the many events that led up to the infamous Los Angeles riots. The documentary calls upon firsthand accounts and archival footage to analyze the death of James Mincey Jr., the 1984 summer Olympics, the rise of gangs, the crack epidemic, the beating of Rodney King, and the unrest that erupted soon afterward.

Available on: Netflix

08 of 15

The Civil War: A Film by Ken Burns

civil war

Inky Dinky Worldwide Inc.

Perhaps one of the most revered documentary films, The Civil War is an utterly rich and extraordinary study of one of the most important conflicts in mankind's history. Ken Burns created nothing short of a masterpiece that will move you to your core.

Available on: Netflix

09 of 15

Studio 54

studio 54

 Zeitgeist Films

Who hasn't been utterly intrigued by the legend of Studio 54 that redefined nightlife and became the icon of an entire era? This documentary gives you an up-close look at the rise and fall of Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell's glitzy New York discotheque. It's the next best thing to being there.

Available on: Netflix

10 of 15

LA 92

la 92

Lightbox 

Though the infamous LA riots occurred back in 1992, it's not hard to see parallels between the heated social and political climate of today and the high emotions that run with it. Directed by Oscar winners Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, the powerful film uses rarely seen before footage of the riots to take viewers right back to the historic moments of rage.

Available on: Netflix

11 of 15

Secrets of Great British Castles

secrets of great british castles

Sideline Productions 

Historian Dan Jones takes us through the fascinating history behind six of the most famous castles of Great Britain, including Warwick, Dover, Caernarfon, the Tower of London, Carrickfergus, and Stirling. Think sweeping shots and grand vistas. Between coverage of the castle's biggest crimes, amusing British factoids, and an easy-on-the-eyes host, this docuseries will entertain you whether you're a history buff or not.

Available on: Netflix

12 of 15

Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise

maya angelou and still i rise

 American Masters Pictures

This is surprisingly the first documentary about the prolific woman described as "a redwood tree, with deep roots in American culture". We are forever a changed nation due to the many gifts Maya Angelou shared with us through her writing, singing, dancing, and of course her activism. This intimate film shares untold aspects of her life through commentary and conversations with the many people she personally touched, including Oprah, Dave Chappelle, Common, and Cicely Tyson.

Available on: Netflix

13 of 15

Civilizations

civilizations

 BBC

This expanded reboot of Kenneth Clark's 1969 docuseries does not disappoint. Each intriguing episode will expand your mind through exploring the art of cultures around the globe throughout the history of mankind.

Available on: Netflix

14 of 15

The Seventies

seventies

Playtone 

Following the success of CNN's "The Sixties", this docuseries explores another decade that tops the list of many people's favorite eras. Executive producers Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman and Mark Herzog cover everything from the Watergate scandal and the sexual revolution, to the Iran Hostage Crisis and the Patty Hearst kidnapping. Using newsreel footage and commentary from journalists to celebrities, this series both entertains and informs.

Available on: Netflix

15 of 15

Chasing Trane

chasing coltrane

 Meteor 17

John Coltrane influenced many with his revolutionary and boundless musical talent that continues to influence people around the world today. This documentary explores the life and work of the legendary jazz musician with commentary from Denzel Washington, Common, Bill Clinton, and Cornell West, among others.

Available on: Netflix

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