There’s no place like Netflix for a lazy afternoon binge. But if you’d like to feel a bit more productive while relaxing on the couch, there’s no better way to spend your time than with these fascinating history documentaries on Netflix. Whether an hour and a half movie or a sprawling, multi-part series, these engrossing documentaries enlighten and entertain.
Editor's note: This piece was last updated 8/8/19.
The Civil War: A Film by Ken Burns
Ken Burns is the king of history documentaries. And The Civil War is a great place to see why. Burns’s first major documentary, The Civil War was the first documentary to use the “Burns effect”: a method of zooming and panning across images to make it seem as though they were moving. The nine episode series will keep you glued to the screen.
You’ll find a variety of Ken Burns’s films available on Netflix, including The Vietnam War, The West, Prohibition, The Roosevelts, and The War (World War I). Each of them is worth a watch.
Related: 12 Essential Civil War Books
Five Came Back
World War II was a whole country effort: Nobody, not even famous Hollywood stars, were exempt. In Five Came Back, Meryl Streep narrates as five current directors explore the impact of the war on five early 20th century directors. Each of the directors profiled volunteered to go to war. They were asked to help by making movies about the war from the front lines. Discover how Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, William Wyler, and George Stevens impacted the war–and how the war impacted them.
Nightlife in Manhattan during the 70s was full of glitter and glitz, and iconic nightclub Studio 54 was no exception to this rule. This documentary follows the story of the rise and fall of New York City’s biggest club and its owners, Steve Rebell and Ian Schrager. While Schrager does keep some of the club’s secrets under wraps, learning about how nightlife evolved in New York City is sure to be a fun ride for history buffs with a nose for scandal.
History's Greatest Hoaxes
From the Loch Ness monster to an alien autopsy video once believed by many to be authentic, historians debunk some of history’s most infamous scams in this docuseries. Each episode centers around a particular hoax and offers insight into how it started, how it blew up, and how it was eventually exposed. Using unseen footage and brand new interviews, this series is sure to intrigue history buffs and conspiracy theorists alike.
Paris is Burning
This iconic documentary deserves the praise it’s received over the years. Documenting the lives of young LGBTQ people in the 1980s ball scene, Paris is Burning explores how fringe or niche culture enters the mainstream. Without ball culture, there would be no “Vogue”, no RuPaul’s Drag Race, and no gifs of Broad City characters screaming “yas”.
In 1992, Los Angeles burst into flames. The Los Angeles riots, in response to the acquittal of four LA police officers who were charged with excessive force during the arrest of Rodney King, changed the city forever. The documentary features unseen footage from the almost week-long period of civil unrest that caused over $1 billion in property damage, over 10,000 arrests, and the death of over 50 people.
JFK: The Making of a President
When you think of John F. Kennedy, you probably actually think of Jackie Kennedy’s bloodstained pink suit. But this documentary focuses on Kennedy’s early life, his career before his presidency, and the relationship he had with his family. Over 45 minutes, you’ll take a deep dive into these aspects of Kennedy’s life in order to paint a more personal picture of the departed president. For those looking for a rendering of JFK outside of his assassination, this documentary is definitely worth a watch.
Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise
Discover the woman behind some of the most vital modern American literature. Perhaps most well-known for her memoir of her early years, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, this documentary delves not only into her lesser known work, but also into the cultural and political moments that made her work possible.
Vikings were notoriously known for being fierce conquerors, skilled traders, and brave travelers who explored parts of Europe and Asia. Unearthed goes beyond what you may already know about the Vikings, offering fresh insight and a reevaluation of what you think you already know. After the discovery of new evidence surrounding the tribe, esteemed archeologist Sarah Parcak traces these clues to uncover secrets about how far the Vikings actually traveled. Parcak’s discoveries and theories are sure to leave viewers astonished.
Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution
This six-piece series includes interviews from both former inmates and guards of the Auschwitz concentration camp. By focusing on one (horrific) camp, the terrors of World War II as a whole come into clearer focus.
Out of Many, One
This Netflix documentary re-humanizes the issue of immigration by following a group of men and women preparing to take the U.S. Citizenship test.. The film takes a deep dive into the current political climate of the United States and focuses on the country’s history and reputation of being a home for immigrants all over the world.
This CNN docuseries focuses on a decade of American history and examines its major events and trends. The 70s were an era of extreme tension in the United States. Moments this series unravels include the resignation of President Richard Nixon, the rise of television, the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and the battle for gender equality. For those interested in this subsection of history, The Seventies is sure to offer an interesting glimpse into the decade. Other decades this docu-series covers are worth a watch–and are available on Netflix–like The Sixties, The Eighties, The Nineties, and The 2000s.
The First World War From Above
Witness a new view of the First World War—literally. This documentary uses footage taken during World War I by French and British pilots to reveal the impact of aerial war on the Western Front. Seeing the damage wrought by these air raids—in particular, the chaos and destruction that rained down on civilians—brings the stark realities of WWI into focus.
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
Hedy Lamarr, once called the world’s most beautiful woman, was far more than just a beauty or a movie star. She also invented the code-hopping mechanism that made cell phones and wireless connections possible. This fascinating biographical doc charts her life, from its beginning as an immigrant traveling from Austria to the United States to her final days as a recluse.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
This documentary investigates the strange death of Marsha P. Johnson, a black gay rights activist and drag queen. Johnson was one of the prominent figures during the riots at Stonewall in 1969. Supposedly, when she threw a shot glass into a mirror at the Stonewall Inn and shouted “I got my civil rights”, the riot ignited. After dedicating years of her life in service of the LGBTQ community, Johnson’s body was mysteriously discovered floating in the Hudson River in 1992. While the police ruled it as a suicide, new interviews with Johnson’s family and friends hint that foul play may have been involved. Although this documentary centers questions around Johnson’s death, her striking life is what makes her memorable.
Featured still from "American Experience" via WHGB