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Amazon Prime has thousands of titles to choose from in its catalog, including a stunning array of documentaries. However, unless you’re really into UFOs, it can sometimes be difficult to sort through all the fluff to find the good stuff. Below, we present you with a list of the best documentaries on Amazon Prime. From true crime to music to Sesame Street, this list has a little bit of everything for discerning documentary fans.
The best documentaries on Amazon Prime
1) 4 Little Girls (1997)
One Sunday morning in 1963, a bomb tore through a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls. The bomb had been placed by members of the KKK, and their act of terror became a rallying point for the civil rights movement. Spike Lee’s harrowing 1997 documentary follows the investigation of the bombing and the impact it had on the passage of the 1963 Civil Rights Act. 4 Little Girls is a heartbreaking film but one that’s worth watching, now as much as ever.
2) City of Ghosts (2017)
An Amazon original, City of Ghosts tracks the trajectory of RBSS, or “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently,” from its inception in Syria to the myriad threats and atrocities that eventually forced key members to flee to Turkey and Germany. It mostly focuses on spokesperson Aziz, reporter Mohamad, and cameraman Hamoud, but many other members of RBSS appear throughout the film as well. While the leadership of this organization has since left, there are incredible Skype interviews with members on the ground in Syria at the time of filming. In case there was any question as to why that’s so remarkable, ISIS declared RBSS an enemy of the caliphate almost immediately after its videos exposing the terrorist group’s actions came out. —Chris Osterndorf
3) Long Strange Trip (2017)
Martin Scorsese executive produced this look at the history of the Grateful Dead, which clocks in at nearly four hours long. That’s only appropriate for a band that’s known for their epic-length jams, but when it hit Amazon Prime after its theatrical run, Amazon sliced it into six episodes for more easy viewing. Long Strange Trip features concert footage, of course, but the new interviews with surviving band members and friends of the band are what really give the documentary heft. Even if you’re no Deadhead, there’s plenty of intrigue in this deep dive into one of the defining acts of the 20th century. —David Wharton
3) Cameraperson (2016)
Kirsten Johnson is a career cinematographer who worked on many documentaries including Darfur Now and the Oscar-winning Citizenfour. Cameraperson is made up of unused footage Johnson shot over the years, edited together in a way that puts Johnson under the microscope as much as it does her subjects. Much of Johnson’s work covers areas of the world that have, or currently are, experiencing harrowing traumas, but the film captures many of the quieter moments that remind us of the goodness we’re capable of. Johnson mixes in home videos that show her mom as her health deteriorates. It’s a reminder that we all have a story worth sharing and that we’re all connected in one way or another. —Eddie Strait
4) Gleason (2016)
This documentary tells the story of former NFL player Steve Gleason. Gleason played for the New Orleans Saints, among other teams, before retiring in 2008. Gleason was diagnosed with ALS (more commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 2011. The documentary charts Gleason’s battle and his advocacy, while also showing how his family has adapted to their circumstance. It’s an incredibly touching film, one that is inspirational and full of hope even in the darkest of moments. —E.S.
5) Ken Burns: The Central Park Five (2013)
In 1989, five black and Latino, teenagers were arrested and convicted for the rape of a woman in Central Park. The crime itself was horrific, but the story that unfolded about the men’s arrest and innocence stand as a horror of its own. The Central Park Five shows how the media, racism, public outrage, and a police force desperate for an arrest carried out a brutal miscarriage of justice that destroyed five innocent lives.
Through the ’90s, the West Memphis Three became odd miniature celebrities, three young men from Tennessee who were accused and convicted of a shocking triple murder. The Paradise Lost trilogy follows the original murder investigation through the West Memphis Three’s eventual release, thanks in no small part due to the national spotlight the first installment created. If you were enthralled with Making a Murderer, you’ll want to add these to your queue.
7) The Kill Team (2014)
In moments of combat, you need to be able to know you can trust the men and women serving with you. But does that mean you have to protect their darkest secrets at the expense of your soul? Private Adam Winfield, a 21-year-old soldier when he served Afghanistan, faced those questions when members of his platoon committed unspeakable war crimes while serving. Winfield reached out to his father to help alert the military to what was going on, but his warnings went ignored. The Kill Team is a painful watch at times but remains one of the most compelling tales on Amazon about what happens when power and opportunities are abused.
8) Sound City (2013)
Sound City Studios in the San Fernando Valley was an inauspicious little building nestled in the heart of California that was home to legendary recordings from artists ranging from Fleetwood Mac and Kyuss to Neil Young and Nirvana. From 1969 to 2011, the studio poured art into the world, all recorded on a custom analog Neve console. When the studio closed in 2011, the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl bought the console, both to keep its legacy alive and to add to his home studio. Sound City documents Grohl’s attempt to record a full album of original music on the console over the course of one incredible 24-hour session. With guest appearances from members of almost every rock band that’s mattered in the last 20 years, Sound City is a love letter to a studio that helped inspire generations.
9) I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
James Baldwin died in 1987, but the civil rights leaders’ work stands today as some of the most poignant and topical writing on race. I Am Not Your Negro is based on Remember This House, the book Baldwin was writing at the time of his death. Using archival recordings of Baldwin, director Raoul Peck connects the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s to race in America today. It’s a heavy documentary, asking difficult questions about the place of African Americans in the United States’ society. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, I Am Not Your Negro is an artistic and educational triumph. Whether you proudly state “All Lives Matter” on your Facebook or marched after the death of Mike Brown, I Am Not Your Negro should be required viewing for every American.
The first Fantastic Four movie to hit theaters came out in 2005, but the first Fantastic Four film ever made was shot in 1993, with no intention of ever being seen. Made by B-movie legend Roger Corman as a way to not lose the film rights to the characters, the entire cast and crew set out to make the film without knowing it would never see the light of day. Doomed! tells the full story behind one of worst superhero films ever committed to celluloid, complete with clips from the disaster itself.
11) Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer (2010)
Budd Dwyer is mostly remembered for the shocking video of his suicide, unwittingly filmed live during a press conference in 1987. While the footage remains in circulation online today, few people know the true story behind the death of the Pennsylvania politician who lost everything due to the lies of others and a bribery scandal he couldn’t fight. Political films come in many forms; Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer is one that will make you think twice the next time you make a rash judgment about a political figure.
12) Jessie’s Dad (2017)
Jessie’s Dad is one of the shortest films on this list—given its brutal subject matter, though, you may appreciate its brevity. Mark Lunsford isn’t the image that comes to mind when you think of a children’s rights activist, with his long hair, tattoos, and piercings. Before 2005 he was a truck driver. Then his daughter Jessie was murdered by a pedophile who lived across the street from their home. This heartbreaking story about a father’s fight to toughen the nation’s laws when it comes to child predators isn’t easy to watch, but it shouldn’t be. Equal parts true crime and social reform, Jessie’s Dad is a compelling documentary that will stay embedded in your brain.
13) Human Flow
Director, political activist, and artist Ai Weiwei grapples with the enormity of the global refugee crisis in Human Flow. The documentary focuses on segments of displaced people all over the world. Weiwei goes out of his way to include plenty of statistics in the movie, but they occasionally distract from the story he’s trying to tell about displaced people and human truths too complicated to be quantified. As many facts as you can learn watching Human Flow, what sticks with you about the documentary are the moments of tragedy and triumph both big and small. —Chris Osterndorf
14) Sriracha (2013)
If you’ve eaten at an independently owned restaurant in the last decade, you’ve encountered Sriracha. The Thai chili sauce has ignited the tastebuds and passions of foodies around the world, seemingly overnight. This lighthearted documentary follows the spread of Sriracha across America, starting with Huy Fong Foods, the company that makes the bottle you see on tables everywhere, through the lesser-known varieties of the sauce that permeate the world.
15) Oasis: Supersonic (2016)
Oasis: Supersonic documents how brilliance, arrogance, substance abuse, and a little luck propelled a small rock band from Manchester, England to the stadiums they still play today. If you miss VH1’s Behind the Music, Supersonic has all the juicy backstage chaos you could ever want.
16) There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane (2010)
On Sunday, July 26, 2009, eight people were killed on the Taconic State Parkway in New York State when a woman drove a minivan 1.7 miles in the wrong direction on the parkway. Her vehicle collided with an SUV head-on, killing Diane Schuler, the driver; her daughter; and the three nieces who were riding with her, along with all three passengers in the SUV. The situation was tragic, but the story the unfolded during the investigation was chilling. There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane is a brutal film about the hidden secrets families only discover after a tragedy, and the alternative answers we search for when the truth is too horrible to imagine.
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17) Aileen: Life & Death of a Serial Killer (2015)
Aileen Wuornos is possibly the most famous female serial killer in American history, killing seven men in Florida between 1989 and 1990. Her story was turned into the film Monster starring Charlize Theron, released one year after her execution by lethal injection in 2002. Aileen doesn’t focus on Wuornos’ crimes, but instead her life after capture and the attempts by attorney Joseph T. Hobson to have her death sentence overturned. Gazing deeply into how our criminal justice system deals with people of questionable mental health, Aileen is harrowing and unforgettable.
18) Endless Summer (1964)
Bruce Brown’s 1964 surfing classic helped kick-start a revolution, inspiring surfers around the world to travel in search of an “endless summer.” Documenting the travels of Mike Hynson and Robert August on a worldwide surfing adventure, Endless Summer sees the duo tackling waves from America to South Africa set to an unforgettable surf rock score by the Sandals. Filmed on a $50,000 budget, Endless Summer ultimately grossed over $20 million at the box office. In an era where we’re spoiled by perfect sports video shot on waterproof action cameras, Endless Summer is made all the more remarkable due to being shot on 16mm film. If you’ve ever picked up a board, you owe it to yourself to see the genesis of surfing’s popularity.
19) Chinatown (2011)
This 46-minute mini-doc is a fascinating look at what happens when two cultures collide. When the mayor of Kalmar, a Swedish town struggling to stay afloat, invites a major Chinese company to build a trade center, it seems like just what the town needed. But both parties struggled to figure out how to work together and the results were disastrous. Chinatown should be required viewing in international business schools.
20) Waco: The Rules of Engagement (1993)
The federal siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, is one the most tragic disasters in American law enforcement history. When it was over, 76 members of the religious cult were left dead, causing ripple effects that still reverberate through separatists across America. Waco explores what went wrong during the lead-up and execution of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives siege. You don’t have to think David Koresh was a good man to be troubled by what happened in April of 1993, and this even-handed examination lays out the facts with calculated accuracy.
21) Zeitgeist (2007)
Don’t mistake Zeitgeist’s inclusion for an endorsement of its theories, ideas, or claims. However, if you’d like to understand the world of modern conspiracy theories, it’s a good entry point for the last 10 years. When the film was originally released on YouTube, Vimeo, and Google Video, it racked up tens of millions of views by spinning a tale of international bankers and 9/11 truthers. It’s an interesting documentary—if you can look past the giant leaps in logic and disproven theories it depends on.
22) Backstreet Boys: Show Em What You’re Made Of (2015)
Of all the music documentaries on this list, none of them humanize their subjects more than Show Em What You’re Made Of. The Backstreet Boys are acutely aware of the jokes that have been told about them over their 20-year career. This doc follows their quest to rebuild their reputation after a lengthy hiatus. It’s a shockingly moving and genuine glance into the second act of pop stardom. You don’t have to know the words to “I Want It That Way” to enjoy this candid look behind the curtain of stardom and the quest to keep the dream alive.
The rates of alcoholism in women have risen over the last 20 years, but often their struggles aren’t noticed until they are too late. My Name Was Bette chronicles Bette VandenAkker, a nurse, wife, mother, and alcoholic whose battle with the bottle was lost in 2007. Substance abuse doesn’t always take the form of falling over or yelling at your kids. Sometimes it’s a quiet battle that people only see being fought until it’s too late. This story is tragic, but perhaps it will help you notice something in someone you love’s life. Just don’t read the heartbreaking Amazon reviews from viewers who relate all too much to this documentary’s subject matter.
24) Art and Craft (2014)
Mark Landis is arguably the most prolific art forger in the history of the United States. Over the course of 30 years, he has passed off forgeries from a wide range of artists and styles. From a fake letter by John Hancock to a recreation of the French Neo-Impressionist Paul Signac, Landis’ frauds were notable for their wide-ranging targets and styles. There’s just one catch: Landis isn’t in it for the money. He gives away his work. What drives Mark Landis, and why are so many people angry with him? Art and Craft asks difficult questions about the ownership of artistic ideas, but it also tells the story of a man who just wants to be appreciated—even if he has to tell a few lies to achieve his goal.
25) Children of Shame (2015)
Tuam, Ireland, was a quiet, if unremarkable, town until the spring of 2014, when authorities discovered a mass grave holding the remains of hundreds of children. Found on the grounds of a former home for single mothers, the grave ignited a soul-crushing investigation into the dark history of this supposed home of second chances and love. Children of Shame uses the tragedy of Tuam to examine Ireland’s brutal treatment of children born out of the sacred bonds of marriage up until the 1990s. Filmmakers Nicolas Glimois and Saskia Weber trace the lives of both mothers and children separated at birth because of the profoundly conservative religious state they lived in. While extremely dark at times, at least you can take comfort knowing these institutions are no longer running in Ireland.
26) Dirty Pictures (2010)
Alexander Sasha Shulgin is undeniably one of the most important chemists of the 20th century, creating hundreds of psychedelics over his career. Dirty Pictures looks at the life of the scientist responsible for discovering MDMA.
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27) Bones Brigade: An Autobiography (2014)
Skateboarding has become a massive industry, but in the ’80s, the idea of being a pro skater was still mostly a pipe dream. The Bones Brigade helped change that, giving birth to the modern skate video, pushing boundaries with tricks, and becoming one of the greatest teams in the history of the sport. Today, even your parents know who Tony Hawk is. Bones Brigade: An Autobiography will show you where he came from and how he and five other absurdly talented friends helped kick-start a revolution in skateboarding.
28) Johnny Carson: King of Late Night (2012)
It’s hard to explain the importance of Johnny Carson to people who didn’t live through his reign on The Tonight Show. From Oct 1, 1962 through May 22, 1992, Carson ruled late night. Over 30 seasons and 4,531 episodes, Carson shaped the national conversation around the water cooler and changed the face of comedy. Over 50 million people tuned in for this final show, and his legacy has lived on through countless comedians and every late-night host since. This documentary features 45 original interviews with his friends, family, and peers, including almost every important comedy voice in the last 40 years. Filled with hysterical moments from the show and rare glances into the life of the notoriously private host, King of Late Night is a joyful celebration of comedy and TV history.
29) Trans (2013)
This thoughtful documentary offers a crash course on the issues surrounding transgender Americans, from the medical complexities of transitioning to the dangers of living in a society that doesn’t accept your right to exist.
30) American Courtesans (2012)
Prostitution is known as the oldest profession, but what do you know about the people who work in the industry? American Courtesans provides a fascinating look into the hearts and minds of women who work in the industry. Some are empowered, some are running, few of them probably fit the image in your mind of who they truly are.
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Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance.
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