While television is a great way to escape reality, sometimes you want to leverage it for a deeper look into real issues, situations, and events. And that’s where a great documentary comes in.
Amazon Prime is known for its fabulous original series and movies, but the streaming service also has tons of great documentaries you can peruse on a variety of topics. We’ve pulled together a list of some of the best ones.
None of these fit the bill? Check out the best documentaries on Netflix right now. If you’re really into true crime, here are 10 stomach-turning true-crime docuseries you can stream.
I Am Not Your Negro (2017)
An Amazon Prime original, this documentary features the recognizable voice of Samuel L. Jackson narrating a series of stories about civil rights leaders, all taken from James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House. Baldwin knew influential activists like Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., and the novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, and activist chronicled his time with them and penned his own observations on American history. Nominated for an Academy Award, the film provides an eye-opening look at race relations in America.
Rotten Tomatoes: 99%
Star: Samuel L. Jackson (narrator)
Director: Raoul Peck
Runtime: 93 minutes
One Child Nation (2019)
Arguably one of the most controversial policies in the world during its heyday, China’s one-child policy was enacted in 1979 in an attempt to control the population of the country, which was expanding at unsustainable rates. The policy eventually reverted to the previous law, a two-child policy, in 2015. For the 36 years in which the policy was active, however, there were numerous consequences, both intended and unintended, as parents had to grapple with impossible choices largely stemming from the preferred status of being born a male in modern-day China. The filmmakers delve into the personal trauma resulting from a policy that drew the attention of the world as China developed into a global superpower.
Rotten Tomatoes: 98%
Stars: Nanfu Wang, Zaodi Wang, Zhimei Wang
Directors: Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang
Runtime: 88 minutes
Super Size Me (2004)
This film was so powerful that many credit it with influencing McDonald’s Restaurants to eliminate their super-sizing options, even though the company swears their decision had nothing to do with the documentary. Morgan Spurlock set out to undergo a crazy experiment: Only eat food from McDonald’s for 30 days straight, three meals a day, to see how it affects him. Without giving too much away, Spurlock documents the various changes he undergoes in body and mind throughout the 30-day period, and it’s staggering, to say the least. The intent was to raise awareness around fast-food companies that encourage poor nutrition for the sake of their own profits and to shed light on America’s obesity problem. It’s a fascinating watch that shows just how much of a difference what you eat can make in your life.
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Star: Morgan Spurlock
Director: Morgan Spurlock
Runtime: 98 minutes
Cartel Land (2015)
You might have seen plenty of cartel-based films and TV series, but this documentary takes you right into the thick of the Mexican drug war through the perspective of vigilante groups trying to take them down. Central to the film are two brave men: Dr. Jose Mireles, known locally as “El Doctor,” who rallied citizens of the state of Michoacan to drive the Knights Templar Cartel out of the region; and American veteran Tim “Nailer” Foley, who formed a group called Arizona Border Recon that he hopes will help stop the Mexican cartel from doing business in the United States. Nominated for an Academy Award, the film takes a raw and honest look at a pressing issue that has too often been glamorized instead of addressed.
Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
Stars: Dr. Jose Mireles, Tim Foley
Director: Matthew Heineman
Runtime: 100 minutes
Chasing Happiness (2019)
In recent years, the Jonas Brothers have worked hard to shed their Disney Channel-tinged image and enter the next phase of their musical career. To do so, however, they had to discover what life was like apart from one another. Chasing Happiness documents the lives of the three brothers, from their publicized breakup in 2013 to their reunion in 2019. The documentary in part promoted their first new record in years, Happiness Begins, but it’s far from being a public relations-palooza, as it also contains previously unreleased footage and personal interviews with the brothers.
Rotten Tomatoes: 75%
Stars: Nick Jonas, Joe Jonas, Kevin Jonas
Director: John Lloyd Taylor
Runtime: 96 minutes
If your interests fall more to fashion, this biographical documentary will be right up your alley. It takes an intimate look at the life and career of Alexander McQueen, who rose to fame from a tailor to a chief designer at Givenchy and finally became a respected British fashion designer in his own right. While the movie was not made with the help of McQueen’s family (McQueen took his own life in 2010 at age 40), the tireless work of the creators resulted in a well-sourced, moving, and respectful look at a young life, and a brilliant design talent gone too soon.
Rotten Tomatoes: 99%
Stars: Alexander McQueen, Tom Ford, Isabella Blow, Kate Moss
Directors: Ian Bonhote, Peter Ettedgui
Runtime: 111 minutes
The Invisible War (2012)
An eye-opening look at rape cases in the U.S. military and how they were handled in the past, The Invisible War puts the spotlight on Coast Guard veteran Seaman Kori Cioca, who, after being unable to get benefits to cover the medical difficulties resulting from her rape, filed a civil suit against the Department of Defense. Many credit this documentary with influencing policy and culture changes relating to rape allegations in the military. It blew the lid off a systemic problem and helped not only to prompt the military to look into sexual assault cases but also to encourage more women to come forward with their own harrowing stories.
Rotten Tomatoes: 99%
Stars: Helen Benedict, Kori Cioca
Director: Kirby Dick
Runtime: 97 minutes
Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018)
Michael Moore is known for his controversial documentaries that polarize viewers, and this, his latest, is no exception. You didn’t read the title wrong — it’s a callback to his previous documentary called Fahrenheit 9/11 about the September 11 attacks. Except this time, the date referenced is November 9, when Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential win was officially announced. Like Moore’s previous work, this film encourages Americans to take action, presenting controversial topics in a jarring, shocking, and sometimes even comedic manner.
Rotten Tomatoes: 82%
Stars: Jim Acosta, Roger Ailes, Brooke Baldwin
Director: Michael Moore
Runtime: 127 minutes
Grizzly Man (2005)
Tragically, Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were killed by a grizzly bear in 2003, but Treadwell, a bear enthusiast, environmentalist, and documentary filmmaker himself, managed to capture incredible footage of the attack, including an audio recording that has never been released. Grizzly Man combines bits and pieces from more than 100 hours of footage that Treadwell shot through the last five years of his life, as well as interviews with his family and friends and experts on bears and nature. While Treadwell believed he gained the trust of some bears and was confident enough to go close to and even pet them, park rangers claim that Treadwell’s actions actually put the bears at greater risk, making them more comfortable with human contact and thus more likely to approach human habitations for food. It’s a really fascinating look at wild bears and one man’s attempt to become one with them.
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Stars: Timothy Treadwell, Werner Herzog
Director: Werner Herzog
Runtime: 104 minutes
“Samsara” is Sanskrit for “wandering” or “world,” and describes the concept of rebirth. And that’s exactly the focus of this non-narrative documentary that took five years to complete. Shot in 70mm format before being output to digital, the film explores the wonders of the world through visits to 25 different countries across five continents. Described as a nonverbal guided meditation rather than a traditional documentary, it’s a great one to put on when you want to sit back, relax, and enjoy a spiritual and visually stunning journey around the world.
Rotten Tomatoes: 76%
Director: Ron Fricke
Runtime: 102 minutes
Steve Gleason was on top of the world as a defensive back for the New Orleans Saints, and was best known for monumentally blocking a punt by the opposing Atlanta Falcons during the Saints’ first game back at the Superdome in nearly two years following Hurricane Katrina. The team would go on to win that game, sparking one of the most successful seasons in Saints history. But in 2011, Gleason’s life changed forever when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The documentary, filmed over a period of five years, looks at his life after diagnosis, including the announcement of his wife’s pregnancy, how the diagnosis has played into his family life, and the advancement of his disease to today, where he relies on assistive technology to communicate. It’s an emotional journey of strength, resilience, and determination.
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Star: Steve Gleason
Director: Clay Tweel
Runtime: 111 minutes
The lead-up to the 2020 election has been one of the most contentious periods in recent American history. From the coronavirus pandemic to the fight for racial justice to the staggering economic downturn affecting millions around the country, it’s never been more important to head to the ballots and vote. That’s the message behind All In, an Amazon Original released in September, less than two months before Election Day. The filmmakers get their message across by zeroing in on the issue of voter suppression, focusing on the 2018 gubernatorial race in Georgia, where Stacey Abrams allegedly lost due to voter suppression. Abrams has since founded Fair Fight Action, an organization dedicated to addressing the issue.
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Stars: Stacey Abrams, Ari Berman, David Pepper
Directors: Liz Garbus, Lisa Cortes
Runtime: 102 minutes
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