The 20 Best True Crime Documentaries on Netflix

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The 20 Best True Crime Documentaries on Netflix

More than 50 years after the publishing of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a pioneering work of the true crime genre, we’re experiencing a boom in the popularity of true crime, especially in film and television. From Making a Murderer to O.J.: Made in America to The Jinx, the last few years could be considered a Golden Age for telling real-life stories of misery. Netflix in particular has made a name for itself in this niche, acquiring a strong slate of indie docs and producing some of their own, higher-profile works. Still, this is always a tricky genre to navigate: for every noble award-winner like The Thin Blue Line, a lurid alternative is likely to pop up in your recommendations. (Please, Netflix, don’t make us watch Josef Fritzl: Story of a Monster.)

Below, we help separate the truly compelling offerings from their trashier counterparts with our list—including movies, TV shows, and miniseries—of the best true crime documentaries available on Netflix.

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1. Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez

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Director Geno McDermott’s three-part 2020 Netflix documentary is as much a story of fame and power as it is what happens when mental illness, abuse, and repeated head injuries like the ones inflicted upon football players go unchecked. Flashing between depictions of New England Patriots’ Aaron Hernandez as a rising football star with an abusive, alcoholic dad to the one we know from recent headlines—his murderous rage and his killing of his friend, Odin Lloyd, and others—audiences see how many lost lives could have been avoided if authorities had only paid attention. This includes Hernandez’s own. He hung himself in his jail cell. An autopsy report found a “severe” case of CTE.—Whitney Friedlander


2. The Two Killings of Sam Cooke

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The Two Killings of Sam Cooke is another installment of Netflix’s original music documentary series ReMastered, attempting to create a holistic portrait of American soul legend Sam Cooke—one that doesn’t carelessly whitewash his story just because his crooner soul also appealed to white audiences. In an effort to save his “murdered legacy,” the film examines his early roots in black churches, the evolution of his music, his impressive business acumen, and his political activism later in life, which is believed to have led to his eventual murder. As Cooke became an increasingly influential cultural figure, his associations with other politically active black figures like Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Jim Brown posed a threat to the racial status quo. Cooke’s murder arises as an integral point of discussion in the film, and the details to this day are still muddy. Just as Cooke began writing politically-minded music—the sequence where “A Change is Gonna Come” plays in the background is breathtaking—his life was tragically cut short, and the film is a reminder of his unbelievable talent, and his embrace of blackness, that history largely forgot. —Lizzie Manno


3. Wild Wild Country

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Some documentaries are more dedicated than others to telling a story from multiple and opposing viewpoints. Wild Wild Country’s primary interviewees—some members of the cult, some residents and law enforcement agents in the Oregon county where the Rajneeshpuram commune was located—seem to have inhabited two separate realities: If you made a Venn diagram, there would be virtually no overlap. In fact, nearly four decades later, the devotees of guru Bhagawan Sri Rajneesh still appear to inhabit a separate reality. Even the ones who fled the cult. Even the ones who were indicted for everything from biological warfare and voter fraud to attempted murder.

In the early 1980s, a guru with an ashram in Poona, India relocated to an 80,000-acre ranch outside the minuscule town of Antelope, Oregon, and then proceeded to be in the news constantly for one crazy thing or another. By the mid-’80s they had disbanded, after a series of legal scandals that ranged from the weird to the outright horrible. Wild Wild Country tells their story in lavish detail, and since they were such a media curiosity at the time there is an incredible wealth of archival footage with which to work. It’s a rambling, if generally thorough, document of a strange historical event, largely recounted by the people who were there, which rarely takes sides and certainly leaves open to interpretation which truth holds more water. Wild Wild Country’s takeaway questions are certainly timely enough: How do we, as a nation, handle immigration and integration? More importantly, why do we make the choices we make in that space? What happens to the hard-and-fast constitutional argument for separation of church and state when a religion is allowed to form its own government and arm its own military? Is it religious persecution when you’re investigated for an attempted murder you actually did attempt? Do the complaints of one side invalidate the grievances of the other? What emerges clearly is that lies are often as serious as salmonella, or the bacteria-vectoring beavers the cult allegedly tried to put into the Antelope reservoir. Once there’s literal and figurative poison in the well, it becomes difficult to cast yourself as either persecuted or enlightened. —Amy Glynn


4. Casting JonBenet

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An unlikely cross-section of humanity also populates Casting JonBenet, which boasts a provocative idea that yields enormous emotional rewards. Filmmaker Kitty Green invited members of the Boulder, Colorado community where JonBenet Ramsey lived to “audition” for a film about her. But in the tradition of Kate Plays Christine or The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear, that’s actually a feint: Green uses the on-camera interviews with these people to talk about Ramsey’s murder and the still-lingering questions about who committed the crime. She’s not interested in their acting abilities—she’s trying to pinpoint the ways that a 21-year-old incident still resonates. It’s a premise that could seem cruel or exploitative, but Casting JonBenet is actually incredibly compassionate. Green wizardly finds connective tissue between all these actors, who have internalized the little girl’s killing, finding parallels in their own lives to this tragedy. High-profile murders like Ramsey’s often provoke gawking, callous media treatment, turning us all into rubberneckers, but Casting JonBenet vigorously works against that tendency, fascinated by our psychological need to judge other people’s lives, but also deeply mournful, even respectful, of the very human reasons why we do so. —Tim Grierson


5. The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

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Director David France’s documentary portrait of “the Rosa Parks of the LGBT movement” has come under fire from trans filmmaker Reina Gossett, who accuses France of purloining the idea for the film from a grant application she submitted to secure funding for her own film about the pioneering trans activist. Still, in bringing wider attention to Johnson’s life and work, the film is a worthwhile reminder that trans women of color were and remain queer revolutionaries—and that they were and remain disproportionately likely to be murdered, often in cases that are never solved. Following trans activist Victoria Cruz as she tries to find the truth behind Johnson’s 1992 death—which the police swiftly ruled a suicide despite indications of foul play—France blends true crime and the biopic into an illuminating treatment of a true American heroine. —Matt Brennan


6. Trophy

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Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau’s Trophy should find an audience among people with a sensitivity to animal suffering, but there’s a decent chance it won’t. Their documentary, an intimate, breathtaking examination of the overlap between conservation efforts and the big game hunting industry from Namibia to South Africa, is too unflinching and honest, too willing to put that suffering at the forefront as a necessary gesture for driving home the unexpected ways its two focal points intersect. Schwarz and Clusiau bounce back and forth from hunters, to safari agents, to conservationists, to ecologists, letting each tell their story of Africa’s relationship to animals, and to the art of the hunt. The film ultimately ties its threads into one innately messy but startlingly cohesive tangle, making the case not for any one of its arguments (whether in favor of hunting or conservation or both), but for nuance in a conversation that tends to trigger most of us. If the thought of seeing rhinos doped up on tranquilizer darts having their horns sawed off is upsetting, or if the idea of animals living out their days in cages, waiting for hunters to select them as prey, gives you nightmares, then you’re the type of person for which Trophy was made, but you’re also the type of person who will find the film unendurable. —Andy Crump


7. FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened

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The disastrous and fraudulent Fyre Festival has been a meme ever since it imploded in epic proportions in 2017 on the Bahamian island of Great Exuma. The festival was marketed to well-to-do millennials and influencers as the most premium and luxurious music festival getaway, and folks bought into it in droves. When festival-goers showed up, it was apparent there wasn’t enough food, water, or housing. Big-name artists began to pull out, resulting in its cancellation and the eventual stranding of attendees. The festival’s purported “mastermind” and yuppie narcissist Billy McFarland fraudulently acquired funds for the festival and has since been sentenced to six years in prison. FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened pulls back the curtain on how A-listers like Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, Pusha T, Blink-182 and marketing giant FuckJerry were duped into associating themselves with and legitimizing this high-level scheme. In the documentary, Fyre employees and outside agencies hired to work on the festival share how a charismatic McFarland could charm investors and top-of-the-line industry professionals into buying his vision, despite a lack of detail on what the festival would actually look like. This film has everything from humor and ego to glamor and gross human negligence. It’s a case study on how bold ambitions can quickly overshadow logistics and completely mask reality. —Lizzie Manno


8. The Keepers

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Who would want to kill a nun? Director Ryan White tries to find out in Netflix’s seven-episode 2017 docuseries surrounding the murder of Catherine Cesnik. The Baltimore-based nun, who was also a beloved English and drama teacher at an all-girls high school, went missing in November 1969; her body eventually discovered the following January. A cold case with the Baltimore PD, White and his team interviewed “Sister Cathy’s” former students and friends as well as investigators and detectives to come up with the theory that the 26-year-old learned a priest was sexually abusing students—and that authorities were covering it up. Fans of The Wire will also appreciate the strong Baltimore accents. —Whitney Friedlander


9. Long Shot

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Among all true crime documentaries, Long Shot holds the impressive and bizarre honor of being the only one in which Curb Your Enthusiasm plays a key role and in which Larry David is a talking head. If that doesn’t hook you into watching the strange case of Juan Catalan’s arrest, not much else will. Director Jacob LaMendola’s film isn’t the most stylish or intricate—in fact, it’s a workmanlike 39 minutes with just enough stage-setting to get to the big twisty payoff. The biggest moment of emotion comes from a production assistant grappling with the impact he, the low man on the totem pole, had at the time. But it’s not a bad thing. The substance is there. It makes for a great cocktail party anecdote. And honestly, between the lengthier, headier films and drag-your-feet series flooding this subgenre’s market, it’s quite a feat to get in and out with a well-told story in such an elegantly clipped runtime. There are no unsolved questions as to Catalan’s innocence. He didn’t kill anyone. But proving that is where the secondhand fun, the Sherlock-esque mystery of it all, comes into play. And if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s nitpicking self somehow time-traveled his way into the 21st century, this is a criminal investigation with the exact kind of oddball detail that he’d love to bury for his fictional investigator to dig right back up again. —Jacob Oller


10. Amanda Knox

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With the Amanda Knox saga (seemingly) done for good, Netflix recently released a definitive documentary covering it from beginning to end—the murder of Meredith Kercher and subsequent arrest, trials and appeals of Knox and Raffaele Sollecito; the ensuing media frenzy; the quiet, fast-track trial of Rudy Guede, the only party upon whose guilt everyone seems to agree. The film relies mainly on talking head interviews with Knox, Sollecito, and two highly entertaining “villains”: boorish prosecutor Giuliano Mignini and smarmy Daily Mail journalist Nick Pisa, the latter wearing a Hugh-Grant-caddishness and a shit-eating grin. While Knox herself is probably the least interesting interview in the film—more fascinating by half are pre-arrest home recordings depicting her as a naïve, giggly teen—Blackhurst and McGinn are clear about where their sympathies lie, and contrasted with the ghastly Mignini and Pisa, it’s hard not to side with these two kids. But still the film feels thoughtful and relatively well-balanced: The media is its true target, and the filmmakers nail the insidious ways that its sensationalism and greed can derail justice and irrevocably ruin lives. —Maura McAndrew


11. Abducted in Plain Sight

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In this eye-brow-raising Netflix documentary, 50-something Jan recalls the bizarre events before and after being kidnapped at age 12 by a trusted family friend. This manipulative predator also had a strange control over her parents, as they candidly recount the reckless decisions they made that increased his hold over their daughter. Sure, it was the ’70s and everyone was a lot more naive about pedophiles, but still, it’s hard to believe Jan is still on speaking terms with parents this willfully clueless. —Sharon Knolle


fear-13.jpg 12. The Fear of 13

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Sington’s The Fear of 13 has a unique vision often not associated with (though probably well suited for) true crime, applying a stark, poetic narrative style to a fairly run-of-the-mill criminal justice story. Death row inmate Nick Yarris sits in a dark room, like in a black box theater, and recounts his story. The film relies almost entirely on Yarris’s charisma and gift for storytelling—developed during the years he spent educating himself in prison—with just the occasional visual or sonic flourish. It’s a risky strategy, but it pays off: The delights of The Fear of 13 lie in Yarris’s elegantly rendered anecdotes in which death row inmates sing in the dark, a bathroom break provides an opportunity for a nail-biting escape and he shares palpable joy in learning new words like “triskaidekaphobia.” Though Sington leaves the viewer context-less for most of his film—Is Yarris telling the truth? Is he really on death row? Is he guilty or not?—he answers all in due time, but not before taking viewers on a pleasure of a ride. —Maura McAndrew


13. Team Foxcatcher

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Netflix released this original documentary just two years after Bennett Miller’s film on the same subject, but where Miller’s film stretched the truth into melodrama, Team Foxcatcher plays it straight. Working closely with Dave Schultz’s widow, Greenhalgh recounts the events leading up to Schultz’s murder at the hands of eccentric millionaire John du Pont. Even for the rare viewer unaware of the story’s tragic ending, Team Foxcatcher offers plenty of insight. In revealing home video footage and interviews with Schultz’s fellow wrestlers and friends, the film depicts life at the Foxcatcher estate, where champion wrestlers lived and trained together under du Pont’s financial support, a generosity fueled by a desperate desire for love and belonging. What begins as an athletes’ utopia becomes a strained, dysfunctional family: As du Pont’s paranoia grows, the wrestlers—concerned with their careers and livelihoods—do their best to placate him. Because in the end, Team Foxcatcher’s greatest asset is its heart—even in the face of bizarre and tragic events, the love this large, makeshift family has for each other (du Pont included) is incredibly moving. —Maura McAndrew


14. The Staircase

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The granddaddy of the modern-day true-crime docuseries genre started with Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s chronicling of the Michael Peterson murder trial. Originally running for eight episode in 2004 on the Sundance Channel, it gave the French writer-director and his crew seemingly unprecedented access into the family and friends associated with Peterson, a Durham, N.C.-based Vietnam vet and novelist accused of killing his wife, Kathleen. Before online sleuthing and binge-watching were the norm, audiences became captivated with a program that seemed to build a case of innocence one episode, and then knock it down the next with reveals of Peterson’s personal life—all the while also making characters out of the defense and prosecution teams (where are my Freda Black stans?). By the time Staircase sequels aired in 2013 and 2018 on Netflix, fan theories were rampant and an Internet-savvier audience was salivating for more. —Whitney Friedlander


15. I Called Him Morgan

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I Called Him Morgan is the story of two troubled people, one of whom killed the other. Documentarian Kasper Collin—who previously made My Name Is Albert Ayler, also about a jazz musician—looks at the difficult, abbreviated life of trumpeter Lee Morgan, who was shot dead in the winter of 1972 in New York. It’s not a mystery who pulled the trigger—it was his common-law wife, Helen, who was more than 10 years his senior—but I Called Him Morgan isn’t about solving a crime, rather, it’s about connecting the dots regarding why the crime happened. Throughout the film, you feel the slow, grim pull of inevitable tragedy set against a lush visual palette. (Oscar-nominated Arrival cinematographer Bradford Young is one of I Called Him Morgan’s credited cameramen.) Talking heads’ tales are crosscut with dreamy images—snowy nights in New York, a hypnotically colorful fish tank—that always feel pertinent to what’s being discussed. And then there are the interview subjects and the milieu. Jazz musicians such as Wayne Shorter and Charli Persip talk about their friend with specificity and insight, and Lee Morgan’s music—as well as the music he played in other people’s bands—fills the soundtrack. The film will be heaven for jazz aficionados, but those who don’t know the difference between bebop and hard bop won’t feel lost. Collin understands that his film is about people, not art, but his deft storytelling—and the endless sadness that comes from his tale—flexes its own nimbleness and beauty. —Tim Grierson


16. Evil Genius

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Everything about this four-part 2018 Netflix documentary is both sensational and horrible. In 2003, pizza delivery driver Brian Wells died during a bank robbery when an explosive collar around his neck detonated. But how did the bomb get there? And was Wells really the type to commit a bank heist or suicide? Writer Barbara Schroeder and her co-director Trey Borzillieri’s investigation include his interviews with Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, who knows exactly how the Wells case came to be and also has some other skeletons in her closet (or rather, a body in a fridge). —Whitney Friedlander


17. Don’t F**k With Cats

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Of course, no animal should be the tortured. But the Internet’s favorite animal? Oh, it’s on. Director Mark Lewis’ three-episode 2019 docuseries—subtitled Hunting an Internet Killer—focuses on Luka Magnotta, a garbage human who gained online notoriety in 2010 after he shared an online video of himself suffocating two kittens. People were not thrilled and a manhunt instigated by computer-chair sleuths ensued. But Magnotta also had others’ blood on his hands. —Whitney Friedlander


18. Making a Murderer

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Whether or not we reach consensus on Steven Avery’s guilt, viewers of Netflix sensation Making a Murderer can probably agree on one thing: It’s an instant true crime classic. Demos and Ricciardi have everything a storyteller could want: class struggle; a pair of virtuous, Atticus Finch-esque defense attorneys; incompetent police galore; and a creepy, power-hungry prosecutor—all acting in the shadow of small-town politics and socioeconomic vendettas. Of course, in the wrong hands, even these narrative gifts could be squandered, but Demos and Ricciardi succeed in their dogged attention to detail and pace. What could have been squished into two hours is drawn out into 10 effective episodes, shifting from Avery’s first overturned conviction to his second trial to the plight of his railroaded nephew Brendan Dassey. Like The Thin Blue Line before it, Making a Murderer’s purpose is not simply advocating for one man, it’s exposing an often ugly, broken system based on petty grudges and sheer carelessness. It’s at times harrowing, at times inspiring, at times despairing—and always outraged. —Maura McAndrew


19. Wormwood

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Wormwood, the Netflix miniseries / theatrical film from documentarian Errol Morris, covers many topics: the untimely death of a father and the havoc such an event wreaks on his offspring; the CIA’s history of experimenting with mind-controlling drugs like LSD; journalistic ethics and the responsibility a reporter has to his or her sources. Most of all, though, Wormwood is about deception: How far and how well will someone (or some government entity) go to keep secrets buried? And what can we deduce from the stories that inevitably leak out over time?

Morris himself is well aware of the conundrum he’s got himself and his viewers in while trying to piece together the circumstances of how, exactly, biological warfare scientist and CIA employee Frank Olson’s life came to a sudden, bloody end when he plummeted 13 stories from a hotel room window in New York in November 1953. And he’s trying a different strategy to get to the bottom of it. Setting aside the Interrotron filming technique he’s used in projects ranging from his Oscar-winning documentary The Fog of War to Apple commercials, this time Morris relies on what he calls the “everything bagel” approach to investigating the Olson case. In Wormwood, he mixes home movies, a lot of Shakespearean imagery, one-on-one interviews with the likes of Olson’s eldest son, Eric, a clinical psychologist, and recreations based on government documents, which feature a cast of well-regarded actors—Peter Sarsgaard as the ill-fated Frank, Molly Parker as his stoic wife, and Bob Balaban as a shady “allergist” hired by Frank’s employers.

The project becomes a lesson in struggling to determine just how much distrust we can still have for the very people we’re supposed to trust to get the answers we need. Clinical psychologist Eric Olson knows he shouldn’t believe the government, particularly when they come forward decades later to explain some of the circumstances of his dad’s death. Yet, like Hamlet taking on Claudius in the Shakespeare play from which this miniseries gets its name, Olson must keep digging to avenge his dad lest he, himself, go mad. But what does this mean for the audience watching Eric’s story play out on screen? Morris has cast actors to recreate scenes from the events depicted by the U.S. government that he, himself, doesn’t necessarily believe are true. So why are we to trust him? —Whitney Friedlander


20. Strong Island

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African American filmmaker Yance Ford’s Strong Island is a paean to his brother William, who was shot dead in 1992 by a white mechanic during an argument. The shooter never faced trial—it was ruled self-defense—and in the ensuing decades Ford and his family have wrestled with the injustice. Strong Island is Ford’s way of working through the pain and anger that still consume him, mixing interviews with direct addresses to the camera. It’s a slightly unfocused work (can anyone fault Ford for being unable to marshal his grief into a completely organized treatise?) but its rawness fuels its astounding strength. —Tim Grierson

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