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The 11 Smartest Documentaries on Netflix

Expand your mind with stories about conjoined twins, false confessions, and the time John Huston went off to fight in World War II.

by Emerson Rosenthal
Jun 1 2018, 6:42pm

From left, The Rachel Divide and Five Came Back. Photos: Netflix

Perhaps the quickest way to Matrix-download new knowledge into your brain is to consume it in documentary form. All you have to do is plop yourself in front of a screen and hit play. Less "Netflix and chill" than "Netflix and rewrite everything you know about everything ever," these selections are food for the brain. From stories about carnival slavery to the early entertainment industry to life in hardcore porn, these films will give your brain some much-needed stimulation.

Bound by Flesh

Leslie Harter Zemeckis sets her sights on the story of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton to explore our uniquely American flair for exploiting otherness. As the story goes, the twins were born in 1908 and quickly sold into what was essentially carnival slavery. Not only is it a bizarre indictment of culture at the levels of American Horror Story, it’s also a wildly relevant explanation for how and why we can’t detach ourselves from the entertainment freak show.

The Confession Tapes

Sorry to break it to you, true crime fans: most of the shit you’re obsessed with has been doctored to fit somebody's narrative, and while there is truth in the emotions true crime conjures, many, if not most of the facts have been manipulated. One antidote is The Confession Tapes, a “seven-part indictment of our criminal justice system” that dives into the difficult world of false confessions, which basically occur when truth fails in the justice system. Don’t stop watching SVU or Mindhunter, of course, but do temper your fill of the fictive with a little fact.

The Eighties

It’s not quite VH1’s I Love the ‘80s, which is a damn shame, but CNN’s look at America’s best decade offers a colorful portrait of the attitudes and ideals that would come to define the way things are now. Pretty much everything contained within requires its own independent investigation, but that’s what these kind of documentary surveys are for: to point you in the right direction.

Five Came Back

The irresistibly thrilling story of when Hollywood directors Frank Capra, George Stevens, John Ford, John Huston, and William Wyler picked up their cameras and went off to fight in World War II comes alive in this three-part series that garnered an Emmy for narrator Meryl Streep. Stories like these are better than popcorn for cinephiles and also help map out the propaganda machine.

Flint Town

A year embedded with the police department of Flint, Michigan yielded this complex and hauntingly beautiful eight-episode documentary series from Zackary Canepari, Drea Cooper, and Jessica Dimmock. While the cinematography is certainly a thing to be marveled at, it’s the verité feel that really takes you into the savage heart of where the American experiment has led.

Gates of Heaven

Vaulted documentarian Errol Morris's first feature film, one Roger Ebert claimed to have sat through “perhaps 30 times.” “When I put it on my list of the ten greatest films ever made, I was not joking; this 85-minute film about pet cemeteries has given me more to think about over the past 20 years than most of the other films I've seen,” the late critic wrote in 1997.

LA 92

Was 1992 definitively the end of the 80s? Filmmakers Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin take you there and back with their serious deep-dive into the Rodney King beatings and their aftermath. These 114 minutes are essential viewing for anyone interested in the race and class issues at the heart of America.

PBS’ American Experience

If you want to learn about anything, the first place you should look is the library. The second is PBS. Inaugurated in 1988, the 330-episode American Experience documentary series started off with a bang—er, well, "The Great San Francisco Earthquake.” Thirty seasons later, it’s become a venue for something of a who’s who of deep-cut documentarians, including Steven Ascher, Stanley Nelson Jr., and Rory Kennedy. It’s not “TV's most-watched history series” for nothing. Thankfully, you can stream a number of excellent episodes including “Rachel Carson,” “Oklahoma City,” and “Ruby Ridge” on Netflix.

Tab Hunter Confidential

Sometimes a single story has the capacity to change our interpretations of the past. The past in question is that of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the story is that of formerly-closeted movie star Tab Hunter. The film runs the gamut when it comes to talking heads, from John Waters all the way to Clint Eastwood, opening the barn door on celebrity, personhood, and politics, beyond simply what it meant to be gay in a bygone era.

Rocco

The story of Rocco Siffredi’s final year in the porn industry is so much more than a paean to hardcore’s most pronounced penis; it’s a story of family, a look at the media machine, and a portrait of desire. Documentarians, in particular, take note: it’s a masterclass in not looking down at your subjects, and in shooting real life like an art film. Watch it.

The Rachel Divide

While at times it feels like filmmaker Laura Brownson lets the former activist Rachel Dolezal off easy on some of her more contestable claims, the film offers a unique window onto the frontlines of identity politics in America.

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