Summer 2019: Top Netflix Documentaries to Watch

Introduction

Warm greetings to you all! As many of you continue to work hard towards your goals this summer, I hope that you will have some well-deserved downtime to rest and reflect. After transferring to the University of Maryland in Spring 2018, I went an entire year without taking a break from school. Last summer, I worked at a law firm during the day and took classes at the community college at night. This past winter, I traveled internationally and spent an entire month abroad to compile a documentary about consumerism in the United Kingdom. Although I am still working at a law firm and taking college classes online, I have gotten better about setting aside time for myself over the past year. Watching documentaries has become a passion of mine and I love to share the stories that they tell with other people. For those of you who struggle with picking a series to watch after a long day at the office, I thought that it would be helpful to assemble a list of the best documentaries that Netflix has to offer. There are three sensational documentaries to choose from per category; Lifestyle, Health, Political Activism, Environmental Activism, Celebrity Stories, Criminal, Historical, Cultural, and Inspirational. Depending on your schedule you can cover this entire list in a month, a season, or a year…Happy watching!

Lifestyle

  • Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things
  • Tidying Up with Marie Kondo
  • Social Animals
I have been intrigued by the concept of minimalism for quite some time, mainly because the idea of “living small” is a lot easier said than done. As someone who likes to scan the real estate market on Zillow and attend nearby open houses for fun, I will be the first to admit that I am not only a steadfast dreamer but an unequivocal goal setter. This documentary prompted me to reevaluate my desired lifestyle and to rethink the way that I had originally intended to live. Josh and Ryan have an incredible amount of insightful information to offer younger generations as it relates to the relationship between happiness and consumer culture.
Simply stated: I love this mini-series! Tidying Up is the perfect series for people (like myself) who love to watch home improvement projects unfold on HGTV. As a Japanese organizing consultant, Marie Kondo transforms chaotic and disorganized surroundings into a clean and tidy environment by carefully removing excess clutter. Marie Kondo helps Americans overcome the overwhelming pressure to buy products with one simple message: less really is more! Today, I frequently find myself walking around my apartment asking…“does this item spark joy?” Now, everything that I bring into my living space is out of careful consideration or pure necessity.
Having friends that can contribute to intellectually stimulating conversations has always been important to me. I was with a small group not too long ago when one of my friends posed the question: what types of unhealthy relationships do you think our generation struggles with the most? My answer was simple: social media and food. Now, I will admit that my answer was slightly biased because it came from the female perspective. In the past five years, I have seen countless young women struggle with separating how they think the world sees them from how they choose to see themselves. The documentary Social Animals shows viewers that we are currently in the midst of a crisis of conscience, largely due to the fact that an exorbitant amount of young people use superficial parameters such as likes and followers to calculate their worth. Whether you care about what other people think of you or not, Social Animals does an excellent job of bringing the hypocrisy and outrageousness of social media to light.

Health

  • Heal
  • The C Word
  • What the Health?
Do you know someone who is battling a chronic illness? A loved one who is fighting cancer? Do you feel like your health and needs to get back on track? Perhaps, you have absolutely no idea what it feels like to function at full capacity? This earth shattering documentary explains that our health can be improved through the power of mind. The greatest take away from this film is that invisible energy affects every aspect of our lives. Therefore, mind, body, and spirit are completely interconnected in the process of healing. Doctors in western medicine could learn a few things from holistic healers…make a cup of herbal tea, grab a journal, and take notes from the various speakers that are featured in the film Heal.
The sheer amount of people that are being diagnosed with cancer seems to be growing exponentially every year. Cancer has become the second leading cause of death in the world. In fact, heart disease and cancer contribute to nearly 50% of deaths in the United States. Furthermore, cancer is a disease that many of us fear because very few of us understand the nature of it. Cancer can develop in the body from a multitude of factors that largely have to do with our lifestyle and environment. Recent scientific studies show that diet and exercise can significantly reverse the effects of cancer in the body. In particular, research suggests that cancer patients can make full recoveries by incorporating meditation, exercising regularly, and following a plant-based diet. If you are fascinated by this health crisis and want to learn more about how you can prevent it, The C-Word is an excellent motivator for people of all ages.
The information in this film absolutely shocked me. To be completely honest, this ground-breaking documentary prompted me to become a vegetarian nearly two months ago. The documentary reveals that several scientific studies that determined that meat is directly involved in causing cancer in humans. The director, Kip Anderson, does an excellent job of exposing the lies that corporations feed to the general public that are directly related to diet.

Political Activism

  • 13th: From Slave to Criminal with One Amendment
  • When They See Us
  • Grass is Greener
The documentary 13th is another testament to Ava DuVernay’s exceptional film making abilities. In recent years, DuVernay has become incredibly well known for her work on the films Selma and A Wrinkle In Time. As a director, her focus has most recently shifted towards exposing racial injustice to advocate for criminal justice reform in the United States. This past semester, I was required to watch this for a class that covered the Rhetoric of Black America. Now, I recommend the film to people with the hope that they will acknowledge that racial inequality is an epidemic that continues to plague American society.
The film When They See Us builds on a great deal of information that is provided in the documentary 13th. Since it’s release nearly four weeks ago, the film has stirred up an incredible amount of buzz on social media. This riveting series is based on the Central Park Jogger Case that happened in New York City in 1989. The director, Ava DuVernay, explores the lives of the five young men from Harlem who were wrongly convicted of charges of rape and sexual assault. If you can only afford to watch one documentary this summer, I would strongly recommend When They See Us. Of course, 13th is an extremely close second.
Curious about the historical and cultural significance of the popular drug marijuana? Same. Grass is Greener sheds light on some of the key issues that surround the recreational use and possession of marijuana in the United States. In particular, the documentary covers how the police have targeted the black population for drug charges since the early twentieth century. Grass is Greener is a history lesson with a new spin. Turn on your television and enjoy an evening of “Wow, never knew that!”

Environmental Activism

  • Black Fish
  • Before the Flood
  • The True Cost
Many of us have seen stickers that read “Save the Bees”…but what about “Save the Whales”? Blackfish is the perfect documentary for anyone who ranges from a passionate animal rights activist to someone who just simply hates the thought of putting wild animals in cages for profit. This film educates the public on the true nature of Sea World from the perspective of former trainers. The narratives that they provide about their personal experiences as employees will rock you to you core. There is so much that needs to be done to help these majestic sea creatures, watching this film is the first step that you can take to make a wave of a difference for Orca Whales.
Actor Leonardo Dicaprio released this excellently complied documentary about climate change in 2016. The narrative of the film is so moving that it nearly brought me to tears. After watching the film a few weeks ago, I have recommended it to several friends and they unanimously agree that Before the Flood is unparalleled in terms of its message about environmental activism. In the past few weeks, I have made several donations to the Forest & Sea Fund, joined Citizens Climate Lobby, and have worked on making the transition to a Zero-Waste lifestyle.
Going to the mall just seemed like the typical teenage Saturday outing when I was growing up. I never put too much thought into it. My friends and I would just stroll the enclosed structure of endless merchandise looking for a good way to blow some cash. Looking back, I have distinct memories of browsing racks of clothes in stores like Forever21 and H&M. Yet, it ever occurred to me that, by purchasing a low quality sweater at the cost of $15, I would be negatively affecting someone else half-way around the world. Consumers hold an immense amount of purchasing power, but the sad truth is that many of us don’t use it responsibly. The manufacturing industry exploits women and children in order to keep up with the demands of capitalist consumer cultures like America and the United Kingdom. By watching The True Cost, you will realize how important it is to buy from sustainable and ethical brands, even if it means having to pay more upfront.

Celebrity Stories

  • John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky
  • Gaga: Five Foot Two
  • Amy
When it comes to the iconicized culture of the 1960’s, I firmly believe that The Beatles will be a permanent topic of conversation. More than fifty years have passed since this sensational rock band made its radio debut in England. Now, multiple generations have grown up listening to classic songs such as “Come Together”, “All You Need is Love”, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and many more. Let’s state the facts: You can never go wrong with a documentary about The Beatles. With that being said, a feature film about the the lead song writer and his muse is so incredibly right. No doubt, John & Yoko Lennon have one of the most misunderstood relationships in history. While many fans blamed John’s relationship with Yoko for breaking up the band, few realized that a soft-spoken Japanese artist brought color into the life of a deeply distressed musician. Above Us Only Sky tells a beautiful story of the love that they shared. Most significantly, the film allows the audience to experience John’s musical rebirth by highlighting the creative moments that predestined the breathtaking song “Imagine”.
This film is perhaps one of the coolest documentaries on this list! Lady Gaga gives the world an inside look at her life as a creative genius and cultural icon. What I love most about this film is that the tone is completely authentic, this artist is definitely not afraid to be herself both on and off camera! The director makes it feels as though you are spending a day with Lady Gaga, what more could fans ask for?! If you find yourself in the mood for something witty and upbeat, you cannot go wrong with Gaga: Five Foot Two.
Have you ever wondered about the life and death of the once in a lifetime singer and songwriter Amy Winehouse? Back in 2011, many people yearned to know more about Amy Winehouse after they learned about the tragic circumstances that surrounded her death. This documentary covers the astounding artist’s short life in full detail as it combs through her rough childhood, rebellious teenage years, toxic relationships, and unsteady music career. After watching the documentary, it’s incredibly clear that Amy put a great deal of meaning behind her lyrics. Way more than she originally led on. The film will have you listening to songs on her hit album “Back to Black” in a completely different way.

Criminal

  • The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story
  • The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story
  • Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes
This series is another primary example as to how gun violence is ravaging the country and destroying the lives of good people. Before watching this film, I was completely unaware that the fashion mogul Gianni Versace was murdered outside of his home in Miami Beach, Florida by his stalker Andrew Cunanan. I always thought Donatella Versace was the sole representative and fashion designer of Versace. To my surprise, Donatella was actually second in command but was forced to take over the company after her brother died tragically back in 1997. The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story will have waiting in suspense with your eyes glued to the television as you watch a riveting story of love and loss to unfold. Trust me when I say that this series is binge worthy…be sure to stock up on some good snacks before you start it.
I watched The People v. OJ Simpson for the first time two years ago and quickly became hooked…I actually skipped a few of my college classes at the time to finish this riveting series. Not going to lie, it was totally worth it. Until recently, I never fully understood the significance of this murder trial. There are so many complexities to wrap your brain around! Now, there is an entire generation that needs to be properly educated on the OJ Simpson trial. Before this series was released, younger generations had to take it upon themselves to learn about this historical event. Well, problem solved! The People v. OJ Simpson will leave you feeling angry, shocked, and utterly amazed. This series is the perfect hybrid as it serves for the purposes of education and entertainment.
Today, serial killers are not a new phenomenon, but they were to people who were growing up during the 1970’s and 1980’s. As a child, I can recall my parents telling me safety precautions like “don’t trust strangers” or “don’t get into a car with someone you don’t know”. Then, as I got older, the talks got more serious like “if you see sirens behind you, don’t pull over unless you’re positive it’s a law enforcement vehicle” and “don’t go on runs around the neighborhood at night by yourself, always take a friend”. In essence, at the start of a young age I always felt the need to be on high alert for perpetrators. Some people have told me that I lean more towards the side of paranoia, well, in those instances, I just simply recommend this film to them. As far as serial killers go, Ted Bundy was incredibly personable, intelligent, and calculated. The Ted Bundy Tapes reveal the true nature of a man that many young women mistook as perfectly friendly.

Historical

  • The 2000’s
  • The Nineties
  • The Eighties
In recent years, I have embraced the communicator and historian within me with arms wide open. At the end of my second year college at the University of Maryland, I declared a major in communication studies with a minor in history. Pairing communication studies with history has brought so much balance to my life because these disciplines create the perfect blend of theoretical and factual information. Watching a series about the 2000’s turned out to be an incredibly eye-opening experience for me, as the footage allowed me to see some of the most significant events from my childhood through an adult lens. By the end of it all, I realized that I had developed a fascination with the past because my generation was entirely focused on the future. In addition, it never occurred to me that, for so many years, I yearned to study people, more specifically, how people communicate, because I experienced how relationships could built superficially at a young age. For instance, Facebook launched when I was in the first grade and the first generation of the iPhone entered the scene when I was in the fourth grade. My generation was the first to grow up with the internet, social media, and the overwhelming feeling of being completely connected to our peers. If you have questions about who you are today and how you got there…watching the 2000’s is a good place to start.
As a history buff, I found the nineties to be an incredibly interesting decade because I was able to analyze how certain trends and events from the 1990’s inevitably spilled over into the 2000’s. The first episode of this series is all about the dawn of a new age in television when single families started to have multiple TV’s within the same household. Viewers can draw parallels between phenomenons from the nineties to the ones that exist today. The reason why this series is so great is because there is something in it that appeals to everyone; television, music, technology, politics, and so much more! Start streaming this eight episode documentary series about The Nineties if you want to relive the early days of Nirvana, Microsoft + Apple computers, and the Monica Lewinsky & Bill Clinton White House scandal.
My parents always spoke very fondly of the eighties…and now I totally understand why the majority of Generation X absolutely rave’s about this decade. Sure, there were some pitfalls with the Reagan Administration such as their role (or lack of) in the War on Drugs, the AIDS epidemic in homosexual communities, and the Economic Savings & Loan Crisis. On the other hand, can you imagine how amazing it must have been to be a teenager when Saturday Night Live, Michael Jackson + Madonna, and video games like Pac-Man first came onto the scene? What a time to be alive. This documentary series about The Eighties is the perfect program for multi-generational families to watch together.

Cultural

  • Feminists: What Were They Thinking?
  • Homecoming: Beyonce
  • Misrepresentation
In addition to prison reform, women’s rights is an issue that I have only recently begun to understand. Growing up, I always felt as though girls were given the same opportunities as boys in school. So the idea of gender inequality never really resonated with me, in my mind it was a thing of the past. When I finally left my bubble to interact with people in the real world, I quickly began to understand the magnitude of the problem. Feminists: What Were They Thinking provides excellent historical context to the feminist movement because it explains the challenges that the women of past generations have had to overcome. Many of them have sacrificed so much to get us of to where we are today. In truth, women have come a long way but we have so much further to go.
This. Film. Is. Everything. I attended Beyonce + Jay-Z’s concert at FedEx Field last summer for the OTRII tour. Of course, the entire show was nothing short of AMAZING. My post-concert depression lasted for weeks. So, when Beyonce released a film that documented her 2018 Coachella performance in full detail…I could hardly contain my excitement. Homecoming celebrates black culture and highlights the fact that The Queen was the first black woman to headline Coachella in the history of the music and arts festival. The amount of hard work and dedication that she put into making this production for her fans is unfathomable. #BeyHive
The little voice inside my head cried out “Yes, preach!!” about every 3-5 minutes while watching this film. It affirmed many of the feelings that I have had from a young age; being a girl is HARD. Women are judged so harshly because we are measured with impossible standards of beauty. If you are a woman who is looking for guidance or reassurance in terms of self esteem and body image…MissRepresentation is the documentary for you!

Inspirational

  • The Story of God with Morgan Freeman
  • Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise
  • Knock Down the House
Who doesn’t love a narrative by Morgan Freeman? There is something about the tone of his voice that is incredibly soothing. His presence alone is honestly, well, Godly. In this series, Morgan Freeman travels around the world to connect with people from different cultures to ultimately tell The Story of God through their eyes. In the first episode, Freeman shows viewers that religious practices across the globe were founded on the theoretical idea of an afterlife. The concept originated in Ancient Egypt and has since spread to places as far as Mexico, Israel, and India. Tune into The Story of God with Morgan Freeman to experience a multitude of diverse religions and cultures from the comfort of your living room couch.
Some of my greatest teachers in life are people that I have never known on a personal level. Maya Angelou is certainly on that list, right next to Oprah Winfrey and Beyonce Knowles-Carter. Many of you are likely familiar with her eloquently written memoir I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Well, this documentary accentuates her life’s work perfectly in every way. Although she passed away in 2014, her gracious words continue to live on in our minds. I am so grateful that I got to walk the earth at the same time that Maya Angelou did. Her writing has been a gift to my generation and it will continue to be for so many others. Watch the film And Still I Rise to gain insight and inspiration from one of the most praiseworthy authors of our lifetime.
As a former Government & Politics major, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that this documentary is worth the watch. Knock Down the House features several immensely commendable women, including Senator Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who all jump started a grass-roots campaign in an attempt to gain a seat in the U.S. Congress. Their individual stories are incredibly moving and together they represent a new wave of strong-minded political candidates that are determined to rid the government of stagnation and toxicity.

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