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The 20 Best History Documentaries

Let these productions teach you something new about history

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PBS

With so many of us at home right now we’re all discovering new programs to watch. A series or movie to hook you in and make you forget about what’s happening in the world. Documentaries are a way to watch something new and learn about unfamiliar topics.

 

The documentaries listed below are some of the best history documentaries that you can currently watch at home. They cover a wide range of topics in history. From the story of the disability rights movement to the history of music in America. Some of the subjects and people of these films might not be known by many but they all have in common that they made history.

1. ‘Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution’ (2020) Netflix

This documentary tells the story of a group of disabled young people who attended summer camp in the early 1970s at Camp Jened. This film does more than just talk about what fun was had at camp. You are able to see the layers of the disabled community. You see the different backgrounds that people come from and how that affects how they each try to interact with each other.  The viewer sees how the disability rights movement was lived by this group of people. From what happened to get laws established and to protect regulations from being repealed. This film which is executive produced by Barack and Michelle Obama tells the story of resilience that leads to real changes for the disabled in the United States.

2. ‘Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation’ (2019) Netflix

The festival that was and continues to be talked about is the subject of this documentary. Footage and interviews about the 1969 event highlight how musical history was being made without people knowing. In the film, you’ll see organizers and attendees recall what happened from their own perspective. The music is the star of the film as you see how it was changing as America changed.

3. ‘Jackie Robinson’ (2016) PBS

The legacy of Jackie Robinson is one that we have read about in books. This documentary tells the story of the player, husband, father, activist, and man that was Jackie Robinson. You see how Robinson used his fame to speak out against the discrimination he saw in and outside of baseball. When he was done playing baseball you also see how he continued to fight for civil rights. This film is a must-see for baseball and history fanatics. 

4. ‘Apollo 11’ (2019) Hulu

Audio recordings and footage that have never been seen before are a highlight in this documentary. You are able to see astronauts as they embark on a trip to the moon. This would be the trip to space when humans first landed on the moon. The film leads you to marvel at how this dangerous space mission changed the way we all view other planets. In 1969 this mission took place and nothing was ever the same after for space travel. Whether you were alive or not at the time view this documentary if you feel like seeing history and how so many dreams are possible.

5. ‘Medal of Honor’ (2018) Netflix

The Medal of Honor is the highest and most prestigious personal military decoration that can be awarded to recognize U.S. military service members who have distinguished themselves by doing acts of valor. This documentary tells the story of Medal of Honor recipients. You learn why and when they were awarded the prestigious honor. In the documentary are recreated some of the stories to further emphasize the acts of valor.  

6. ‘RBG’ (2018) Hulu

This documentary gives a look into the life and career of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The film shows how the second woman ever to serve on the Supreme Court began her career. At a time when women lawyers were not the norm, Ginsburg challenged the status quo and created her own legal legacy. The documentary has interviews that add to a "behind the scenes" look at RBG’s life. Even if you have a different political view when you see everything Ginsburg fought to change you leave the documentary in awe of her determination to make a difference in America.

7. ‘The Roosevelts: An Intimate History’ (2014) PBS

This documentary takes an intimate look at Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt. They are each individually looked at but you also see how they are interwoven together. This family was influential in American politics but you also see the human side of each of them. While each worked to make changes in their own causes they inspired many to continue the fight after they were gone. This one family continues to shape American history. 

8. ‘The Apollo’ (2019) Hulu

The Apollo is the theater that has a history and legacy unlike no other in America. The history that has been made is the story of American entertainment. This film shows how Apollo created opportunities for entertainers that might not have been able to perform at some other place. You also see how America was changing as the Apollo grew its legacy.

9. ‘Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool’ (2019) Netflix

This documentary has never before seen footage and celebrity interviews to show the jazz legend that was Miles Davis. Viewers get to see how he made jazz music history as a trumpeter, composer, and bandleader. Davis looked at music differently which led to him creating music that was innovative and now often imitated by others. It was not easy for him to be accepted by others and the film goes into how he was always looking to challenge what was jazz music. If you want to learn about music history then this film is a must-watch.

10. ‘Prohibition: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’ (2011) YouTube

Looking back to the era of prohibition you get to see the rise and fall of the Eighteen Amendment of the United States Constitution. The history of prohibition is examined to show how some thought that it would improve the lives of Americans but instead turned usual law-abiding citizens into criminals. Instead of stopping people from turning into alcoholics, it made drinking look fun and glamorous. This documentary will get you thinking about individual and government responsibilities. 

12. ‘Our Planet’ (2019) Netflix

This film is a history lesson for any person who wants to learn about animals all over the world and how they live in nature. In this documentary, you can see how diverse the animal population is around the globe. A better understanding of how animals survive in nature is looked at in the documentary. The ways that climate change has been and continues to affect animals and nature is given a wide view because you are able to see that in all parts of the world a mark has been left. Yet, the film also gives you hope on how viewers can be champions to save our planet. 

13. ‘Country Music’ (2019) PBS Passport

Ken Burns tells the story of country music in an eight-part, 16-hour documentary. The award-winning filmmaker gives a look at the history of country music in America and how it has evolved. We see how over the 20th century the music went from being played in small settings in the USA to stadiums around the globe. Never before seen photographs and footage add to the interviews of over 80 country artists. You don’t need to be a country music lover to be interested in how the hard work and eventual success of many country music artists occurred.

14. ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ (2018) Hulu

This documentary from Peter Jackson uses restored archival footage and audio to tell the story of World War I from the people who lived through the war. Using the collection of Britain’s Imperial Museum the filmmaker was able to use state of the art digital technology to restore and colorize the footage. You are able to hear from soldiers who survived the war and what they experienced. You are able to see how young they were at the time. This film adds to what we know about the war especially because so many of us just learn about this period from what we read in books.

15. ‘The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’ (2017) Netflix

This documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick examines the Vietnam War from both sides. Presented are interviews from people who opposed and believed in the war. You hear from the soldiers, protestors, and families who went through it all. The documentary is 10 parts and adding to the film are recordings from the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. 

16. ‘Baseball’ (1994 & 2010) PBS

Another documentary by Ken Burns tells the story of how the game became America’s national pastime. You hear from fans, players, and management on what makes the game great. The documentary was so well received in 1994 that a new part was added in 2010 to tell additional history from the 1990s and 2000s. Footage from the past adds to the documentary as you see why players were considered greats of the game. The reasons why players and management have fought are examined. An important part of the documentary is seeing how people fought for racial justice in the game as people were fighting in the USA for equal rights. There is no live baseball right now but if you want to see baseball watch this documentary and learn the game’s history.

17. ‘Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert’ (2020) YouTube

Right now we can’t go to any music festivals but if you want to learn how Coachella came to be and how it has stayed popular then watch this documentary. During the documentary, you get to see how the festival has evolved in its music offerings. Rock, punk rock, EDM, pop, rap, and hip-hop are just some of the music genres that have been heard at Coachella. The changing of genres has kept the festival relevant and brought memorable moments to the festival. In the film, you’ll also see some of the past performances and how some performers put their acts together.

18. ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ (2018) Hulu

The story of the life and legacy of Fred Rogers is explored in this documentary. We get to see that Roger’s was more than just his educational television show and how he became a part of American history. The work he put into his performances helped to shape how children looked at using their own imaginations and being compassionate with others. He talked about topics that were happening to adults in the country but broke it down for kids. The documentary shows so much information about Fred Rogers that you don’t need to have grown up watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to understand the importance his show has had on generations. When you’re in need of a pick me up this film helps show that lessons learned as children stay with us forever.

19. ‘Night on Earth’ (2020) Netflix

This documentary shows the lives of a variety of animals around the world at night. Shown in part is the history of how the animals are linked to the moon’s cycles. When day turns to night the temperature drops and we see how colder climates animals and their children fight to survive. In the jungle is shown how animals hunt and climb. In cities, viewers see how urbanized animals go through the city. We are also able to see how certain animals rise with the sunset. If you have ever been curious about how animals communicate at night then this documentary could be what you’ll want to watch.

20. ‘Mercury 13’ (2018) Netflix

In 1961 after undergoing severe training, a small group of female pilots was asked to step aside when just men were selected for space travel. The main reason these women aren’t selected is for being female. This documentary looks at how the men in charge decided women weren’t needed in space. Yet, you learn how these women went through the exact same physical and psychological tests. They matched or sometimes exceeded the results of the men. These women just wanted to go into space if they were the most qualified and it is interesting to see how they were fighting to make history. 

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