Netflix is a great source for movie fans who enjoy a good documentary. The streaming platform has list after list of worthy content all categorized by genre. There are crime, politics, sports, real-life stories and foreign movies. If looking for a documentary with something more, look no further. Netflix has an array of riveting documentaries directed by women.
Audiences have their eyes glued to the small screen with documentaries like Homecoming, directed by Beyoncé herself. There are also political documentaries, showing the inspirational rise of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to Congressional office and directed by Rachel Lears, for example. There’s so much more and so little time to binge.
10 Elena (2012): 7.6
The Brazilian documentary, Elena debuted in 2012. It was directed by Petra Costa and her name might sound familiar to some Netflix fans. Costa is also well known for her Netflix original documentary that was nominated for an Academy Award, The Edge of Democracy. Elena did slightly better in terms of IMDb score.
The documentary details the life of Costa’s older sister, Elena Andrade. Elena is a young woman who moves to New York from Brazil to pursue the same dream her mother had, to become an actress. She leaves behind her childhood, overshadowed by a dictatorship, and her younger sister. She returns to Brazil years later with no luck until being accepted into a New York college, but this time she takes her family with her.
9 The C Word (2015): 7.6
Everyone dreads the “C” word and it needs little explanation of what the letter signifies: cancer. Not only is the 2012 documentary, The C Word, about the journey to preventing cancer in the medical field, but it has an inspirational backstory. The movie was directed by Meghan O’Hara, who ventured to make the documentary after surviving stage 3 breast cancer.
The documentary prompts audiences to explore the research by Dr. David Servan-Schreiber and the four identifiers that could reduce the risk of cancer. Intermixed is the story of Western medicine’s failure to combat an illness that plagues thousands of people every year.
8 What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015): 7.6
Director Liz Garbus is known for a number of her documentary movies, such as Love, Marilyn and Bobby Fischer Against the World. But Garbus tackled another real-life story that got people’s attention – the life and story of singer Nina Simone. The documentary debuted at Sundance before becoming available on Netflix. It was nominated for Best Documentary Feature 2015 at the Academy Awards and it even went on to win an Emmy for Outstanding Documentary.
The documentary served as a riveting and insightful look at the singer’s life and legacy. Simone became a civil activist after the events in 1960, leading her to move to Liberia. She was a powerhouse Black artist and icon who left an incalculable mark on the world.
7 Unrest (2017): 7.7
Unrest was produced and directed by Jennifer Brea and became her most notable work so far and first feature debut. The story is a documentary about her life, health and sudden illness. While studying to get her Ph.D. at Harvard University, she suddenly becomes ill. On the cusp of getting married, she experiences a horrible fever that leaves her bedridden.
Brea is soon confined to a bed and goes on her own virtual journey to uncover her diagnosis and a hidden community of people suffering the same ailment. She has chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and finds a new sense of resilience for life connecting with people around the world who teach her how to fight on. Brea filmed and created the documentary all while bedridden.
6 Athlete A (2020): 7.7
The news story regarding Doctor Nassar, a USA Gymnastics national team doctor, swept the nation and caused an uproar and a spark to uncover the truth. Starting in 2015, Nassar was accused of multiple cases of sexual assault against female gymnasts. Some victims included gymnasts from the United States Olympic team.
The Netflix movie Athlete A documents and follows a group of investigative journalists at The Indianapolis Star who first broke the story. The documentary was co-directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk. Owen Gleiberman from Variety praised the documentary’s ability to tell the story of its survivors and give a glimpse at the bigger picture regarding sexual assault.
5 The Devil We Know (2018): 7.7
The Devil We Know was a 2018 investigative documentary directed by Stephanie Soechtig alongside Jeremy Seifert. Soechtig is known for creating and directing documentaries exposing the harmful effects of items such as bottled water, obesity in the food industry and even gun lobbying. The 2018 documentary exposes the allegations of the health hazards of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA, also known as C8).
What is perfluorooctanoic acid used for? It’s a key ingredient found in Teflon manufactured by DuPont. The documentary chronicles the investigation, starting in West Virginia where the DuPont facility operates, along with public hearings, ads, and even input from scientific professionals.
4 The Square (2013): 8.1
The Square isn’t meant to be confused with the 2017 comedy-drama movie of the same name. The 2013 documentary is an Egyptian-American movie directed by Jehane Noujaim. She is a well-known director who has been previously nominated for an Academy Award and best known for her work in Control Room and Startup.com and she co-directed, The Great Hack.
The Square deserves its own praise, as it was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 86th Academy Awards and won three Emmys. The Washington Post described the documentary as “a beautiful documentary. But its politics are dangerous.” It documents Egyptian revolutionaries as they battle in a war against their leaders and regime for a better future.
3 Blackfish (2013): 8.1
Produced and directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Blackfish is a documentary many have heard of when it first came to Netflix. The movie’s premise is one that tugged at many viewers’ heartstrings, as it involved a common ethical and moral debate about the treatment of animals, specifically orca whales.
The documentary took a deeper look into the captivity of killer whales at SeaWorld. An often debated controversy, it detailed the concern for Tilikum, an orca involved in the deaths of three people. It raises the question and investigates the impact of captivity on a killer whale and its consequences.
2 13th (2016): 8.3
Ava DuVernay tackles one of society’s and the nation’s most talked-about subjects when it comes to infrastructure and the prison system. 13th explores the history of racial inequality in the United States, while taking a closer look at the prison system and its majority of inmates being people of color.
The documentary has multiple voices from academics, activists and political figures who have spoken out against the issues like Angela Davis, Bryan Stevenson and Van Jones. Peter Travers from The Rolling Stones said, “DuVernay has molded her doc into a living history of slavery as an institution that won’t quit.”
1 A Lion In The House (2006): 8.6
In relation to The C Word, A Lion in the House takes a look at the other side and documents the emotional journey of being diagnosed with cancer. The 2006 documentary was directed by Julia Reichert and Steven Bogner and documents five families over the course of six years as their child is diagnosed with cancer.
The movie details how families from different walks of life cope and deal with cancer and treatments received at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Reichart was hesitant, at first, to take on the project, seeing as her daughter just finished cancer treatment a year prior to being asked to do the movie. The film has since received numerous awards and is praised for bringing awareness to pediatric cancer.
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