The 15 best movies based on true stories on Netflix


Photo via Paramount Pictures

Sometimes real life is even more fantastic than fantasy.

Need a little inspiration from some people who seemed larger than life? Check out these movies based on true stories currently streaming on Netflix—then go out and live your best life.  

1) Lovelace

In 1970, a woman named Linda Lovelace became an international sensation by introducing the blowjob onscreen. Deep Throat grossed over $600 million worldwide, yet Lovelace made only about $1,250. Lovelace traces the life of its namesake, Linda Lovelace (Amanda Seyfried), through ages 25 to 30. After being persuaded by boyfriend Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard) to star in Deep Throat, Lovelace eventually becomes an anti-porn feminist and women’s rights advocate. The film also portrays the violence and exploitation Lovelace experienced, both from Traynor and from the industry.

2) Spotlight

Spotlight is a drama of the old-school model, bringing into comparison gems such as All the President’s Men. It follows the Boston Globe's Spotlight team as it exposes the numerous cases of child abuse and molestation by clergymen covered up by the Catholic church in Boston. The Boston Globe went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for their efforts, and the scandal ran so deep that the Archbishop of Boston was forced to step down. If you care about journalism, it's a must-watch. 

3) Fruitvale Station

Oscar Grant was a young black man shot in 2009 by Bay Area Transit System police officer Johannes Mehserle. The movie begins with actual footage of Grant and his friends being detained by the police in Oakland, California, before his killing. It takes us through the last day of his life, from arguing with his girlfriend to his worries about feeding his daughter. In the post-credits scene, title cards show that Grant’s death sparked a series of riots across the country, and the incident was recorded by several witnesses through cellphones and cameras. The police officer who shot him served an 11-month sentence for involuntary manslaughter.

4) Frida

The love story of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera is one of the most passionate and famous romances in the art world. Frida captures artist Frida Kahlo’s love of life and living, despite being in constant pain due to several crippling injuries. Kahlo meets Rivera as a young girl when Rivera was already famous—equally for his carnal appetite as for his art. They become friends, then lovers. Frida’s paintings reflect her loneliness in a world of excruciating physical pain, but her life illustrates her overwhelming vitality.

5) Cinderella Man

Starring Russell Crowe in his prime, Cinderella Man portrays the descent of a boxer into poverty during the Depression and his subsequent rise as a professional fighter. Jim Braddock is a father and a husband whose boxing career initially allowed him to provide decently for his family, before breaking his right hand in a fight. He then is forced to work odd jobs, including slinging bags of coal with his left (uninjured) hand, which is how he develops the left hook that wins him the name “Cinderella Man.” The film is a feel-good story about a man fighting (pun intended) to help his family against the odds, in times when they are surrounded by a nation in despair.

6) Life of a King

Ex-con Eugene Brown discovers his love of chess in jail while serving time for bank robbery. After doing 18 years, Brown gets a job as a janitor at the local high school where he soon monitors the detention room. Brown then founds a chess club with these troubled kids, who he can relate to, and waxes poetic on how chess is a metaphor for life.

7) Braveheart

Mel. Gibson’s flowing locks alone are enough reason to watch this war epic that scooped Gibson five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Loosely based on real-life Scottish warrior William Wallace, Braveheart tells the story of Wallace rallying the Scottish in an insurrection against the British. He ends up dying on the rack in one of the most famous death scenes in cinema (and in history).

8) The Pursuit of Happyness

If this film about the touching story of a homeless single father and his young son doesn’t move you, you should check your pulse. Will Smith plays Chris Gardner, an earnest salesman evicted from his apartment. He struggles to take care of his young son, impressively played by Smith’s own son, Jaden. Gardner lands an unpaid internship at a top brokerage firm after impressing one of its managers by solving a Rubik's cube and has to compete for the one paid position as a broker while hiding his precarious financial circumstances. He ends up winning the position and goes on to found his own multimillion dollar brokerage firm. The Pursuit of Happyness is just one of those movies in which you can’t help but cheer for the protagonist throughout the whole film.

9) Erin Brockovich

Julia Roberts plays Erin Brockovich, an embattled single mom who talked her way into a job at a law firm. Brockovich began an investigation on Pacific Gas and Electric and ended up playing a key role in a lawsuit that cost the company over $333 million. Although the film’s costume design undermines Roberts’ acting prowess (yes, Brockovich was known for her provocative personal style, but how the wardrobe department approaches it is a bit of an over-exaggeration, to say the least), the true-life story is quite compelling and worth a watch.

10) Radio

There is good in everyone, or at least filmmaker Mike Tollin likes to think so. And he makes a compelling case with Radio, the story of a mentally disabled local man adopted by the town’s football team as a sort of mascot. The movie is based on the Sports Illustrated story written by Gary Smith about the relationship between James Robert “Radio” Kennedy, a mentally disabled black man, and Harold Jones, the Anderson football coach.

11) The Aviator

In many ways, the life of billionaire Howard Hughes was similar to Martin Scorsese, who directed this movie about the talented magnate. Hughes was the heir to his father’s Texas fortune and used it to make movies, buy airlines, and date Hollywood beauties. Like Scorsese, he was brilliant but eccentric, and eventually descended into darkness, although Scorsese himself ended up flowering into his career. The Aviator stars the indomitable Leonardo DiCaprio, whose ability to transform himself into whatever character he takes on is uncanny and gives us a glimpse into the tortured, brilliant world of the former richest man in the world.

12) J. Edgar

J. Edgar Hoover is as infamous for his (somewhat) hidden homosexuality and for blackmailing MLK as he is for founding the FBI. I mean, the guy even got a shout-out on Clue, the movie. Another DiCaprio film, J. Edgar is directed by Clint Eastwood with a screenplay by the writer of Milk, Dustin Lance Black. The film is a masterful biopic spanning seven decades, showing us a man so untouchable, with so much dirt on every person in power, that he holds hands with his lover in public while condemning homosexuals and blacks.

13) Lee Daniels' The Butler

The story of fictional White House butler Cecil Gaines is based on Eugene Allen, a historical figure in the “smallest of print,” according to the Washington Post article that inspired the movie’s filmmakers. Director Lee Daniels places Gaines in important historical scenarios through the decades, Forrest Gump-style. He’s worked through eight presidential administrations, and every president who goes through there from Nixon to Reagan asks his advice at some point. The film ends with a shot of an emotional Gaines as Obama is being sworn into office.

14) Experimenter

The famous Milgram Experiments tested one question: How far will you go to obey, even if it means hurting someone else? The results were shocking. In 1961, Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) conducted a series of radical behavior experiments that tested the willingness of ordinary humans to obey an authority figure while administering electric shocks to strangers. In the first half of the film, it is shown how the experiments are conducted, with nearly every test subject succumbing to the pressure of the circumstances and administering shocks to a stranger, despite the stranger begging him to stop. Between the experiments, Milgram meets the Alexandra, the future mother of his children.

15) Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Idris Elba stars as Nelson Mandela in his struggles against systemic racism in South Africa. The film chronicles his early life, coming of age, education, and almost three decades in prison before becoming president and working to rebuild post-apartheid. Although it falls into the trap of idealizing the great leader, the biopic is still worth a watch, if only for educational purposes.

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