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Best History Documentaries: Top Picks for Compelling Stories and Insights

History documentaries have the power to transport us to different eras and help us understand the events that have shaped our world.

From biographical documentaries illustrating the lives of influential figures to deep dives into historical wars, political and social issues, cultural and geographical histories, and developments in the realms of art and entertainment, these films encompass a wide range of topics, shedding light on both well-known and obscure aspects of history.

Iconic filmmakers and their award-winning documentaries have captivated audiences and ignited curiosity through powerful storytelling and thought-provoking narratives.

Offering both a global and local perspective on history, these documentaries not only inform and educate but also challenge our understanding of the past and encourage critical thinking on how historical events have shaped our present and will continue to influence our future.

Key Takeaways

  • History documentaries cover a broad range of topics from influential figures to pivotal events.
  • Filmmakers captivate audiences through powerful storytelling and award-winning narratives.
  • These documentaries encourage critical thinking and deepen our understanding of the past.

Essential History Documentaries


13th is a powerful documentary that explores the intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States. Directed by Ava DuVernay, the film takes an in-depth look at the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime.

Through interviews and archival footage, the documentary illuminates the history of racial inequality in America and how it has led to the current state of mass incarceration.

Holocaust Documentaries

Holocaust documentaries are vital for understanding one of the darkest chapters in human history. Shoah (1985) is considered one of the best documentaries of all time.

This nine-and-a-half-hour masterpiece by director Claude Lanzmann focuses on the present, using testimonials from survivors, witnesses, and even perpetrators to create a vivid portrayal of the Holocaust.

Another noteworthy Holocaust documentary worth watching is The Last Days (1998). This documentary, produced by Steven Spielberg, tells the harrowing story of five Hungarian Jews who survived the Holocaust and eventually immigrated to the United States.

Civil Rights Documentaries

The civil rights movement in the United States had a profound impact on race relations, culture, and the history of America. Documentaries focused on this theme can provide valuable insights into this crucial period. One example is I Am Not Your Negro (2016), an Academy Award-nominated documentary that explores the lives of three civil rights icons: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., through the writings of James Baldwin.

Another important civil rights documentary is Eyes on the Prize (1987), an in-depth series that chronicles the civil rights movement in the United States from the 1950s through the 1980s. This 14-part series examines the strategies, tactics, successes, and failures of the various organizations and individuals involved in the struggle for racial equality.

Biographical Documentaries

Bob Dylan

For fans of Bob Dylan, the documentary No Direction Home offers a fascinating look into the life and career of this iconic musician. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the film is made up of rare and never-before-seen footage of Dylan, paired with interviews from some of the people closest to him. This documentary provides an immersive and intimate portrayal of Dylan’s journey, capturing the essence of his art and the impact he had on both music and culture.

Philippe Petit

The story of French high-wire walker Philippe Petit is beautifully captured in the documentary Man on Wire. Through a combination of interviews, archival footage, and reenactments, the film recounts Petit’s incredible feat of walking between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. This mesmerizing documentary celebrates not only the daring act itself, but also the spirit of creativity, courage, and perseverance that made it possible.

A biographical documentary offers a unique opportunity to delve into the lives and accomplishments of influential figures from various fields. Whether you’re interested in music, art, or daring feats of human achievement, these three documentaries provide insightful, informative, and inspiring perspectives on their subjects.

Historical Wars

Oppenheimer and The Manhattan Project

The Manhattan Project was a pivotal moment in world history, changing the course of warfare and geopolitics. This top-secret research project, led by physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, aimed to develop the world’s first atomic bomb. You can learn more about the events and people involved in this documentary, which captures the anxiety, scientific breakthroughs, and moral dilemmas faced during the project.

The documentary provides a confident, knowledgeable, and neutral look at the politics surrounding the Manhattan Project and its impact on modern warfare.

Ancient Wars and Battles

Ancient wars and battles have shaped human history and civilization. This sub-section dives into different conflicts from antiquity, from the glory of Sparta and the Persian Empire to the conquests of Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire.

The documentaries provide a clear and knowledgeable look at the strategies, politics, and heroics that defined these ancient conflicts. They shed light on the wars of the past and how they have influenced the world we live in today.

Iraq and The War on Terror

The Iraq War and the broader War on Terror have had a profound impact on global politics and international relations in the 21st century. A number of documentaries have been produced that take an in-depth look at the causes, events, and consequences of these conflicts.

They examine the political motivations behind the wars, as well as the experiences of soldiers and civilians caught in the crossfire. The documentaries provide a confident yet neutral tone, ensuring the viewer gains a clear understanding of the various perspectives and complexities of these modern conflicts.

Political and Social Documentaries

American Prison System

The American prison system has been a subject of numerous documentaries that explore its flaws and call for reforms. One documentary, 13th, delves into the racial and political issues that have contributed to the high incarceration rate in the United States, particularly focusing on the 13th Amendment and the privatization of prisons.

Immigration and Borders

There are some exceptional documentaries that tackle the topic of immigration and border issues. Human Flow by Ai Weiwei is a visually striking film that showcases the mass movement of refugees and migrants from European, Middle Eastern, and African countries.

It provides a humanizing perspective while addressing the political and social challenges faced by immigrants.

Civil Rights

The fight for civil rights has been well-documented in films that offer both historical context and contemporary perspectives. I Am Not Your Negro is one such documentary that looks at the life and works of James Baldwin, who was a key figure in the civil rights movement.

By providing a detailed examination of the life and works of James Baldwin, the documentary offers a compelling exploration of race relations in America.


Documentaries about LGBTQ+ history and its intersection with politics can provide valuable insights and awareness. One such documentary, Before Stonewall, tells the rich and complex history of the LGBTQ+ community in the United States before the landmark Stonewall uprising.

The film features interviews with people who lived through the period, and it examines how the LGBTQ+ rights movement shaped the political landscape in subsequent years.

Cultural and Geographical Histories

In this section, we explore some of the best history documentaries that cover cultural and geographical histories, focusing on four specific areas: African History, Japanese History, Ancient Egyptian History, and Medieval European History.

African History

The African continent, with its diverse cultures and rich history, provides ample material for compelling documentaries. One notable example is “The Square,” which offers an immersive experience of the Egyptian Revolution. This award-winning film was nominated for a 2014 Best Documentary Feature Academy Award and won three Emmys.

Another noteworthy documentary is “The Lost Kingdoms of Africa,” a BBC series that explores the continent’s lesser-known empires, such as Great Zimbabwe, the Kingdom of Kush, and the Kingdoms of West Africa. This documentary captures the complexity of Africa’s past and sheds light on the ingenuity, creativity, and resilience of its many cultures.

Japanese History

Japanese history, filled with fascinating stories and traditions, offers an engaging subject for documentaries. “The Story of Japan,” a six-part BBC series, covers Japan’s history from its ancient roots to modern times. Delving into topics like samurai culture, the rise of industry, and Japan’s role in World War II, the series provides an in-depth look at this unique nation.

Ancient Egyptian History

Ancient Egypt’s mysteries continue to captivate audiences, inspiring many documentaries that explore its culture and history. “The Nabataeans: The Final Days of Petra” (2022) delves into the once-great civilization of the Nabataeans and the downfall of their iconic city, Petra.

For those interested in the more well-known aspects of Ancient Egyptian history, “The Secrets of Egypt’s Valley of the Kings” offers a captivating look at the lives of the pharaohs and the efforts to uncover their burial sites. This documentary examines their incredible tombs, providing insights into Egypt’s past and the people who once ruled it.

Medieval European History

Medieval European history, with its gripping tales of knights, castles, and intrigue, has inspired countless documentaries. One example is “Secrets of the Castle” (2014). In this series, historian Ruth Goodman and archaeologists Peter Ginn and Tom Pinfold learn about life in the medieval world and help rebuild a castle.

Another great documentary for those interested in medieval Europe is “The Plantagenets,” which delves into the powerful dynasty that ruled England from the 12th to the 15th centuries. By examining key events and figures from this era, these documentaries illuminate the different aspects of European history that make it so fascinating.

Art and Entertainment Documentaries

True Crime

In the realm of art and entertainment documentaries, True Crime has grown in popularity, captivating audiences with gripping narratives. One such documentary that delves into the chilling impact of infamous murderers is “The Imposter”. It showcases the story of a Frenchman who posed as a Texan teenager that went missing. Featuring interviews and dramatic reenactments, this tale of deceit and investigation continues to leave viewers on the edge of their seats.

Musicals and The Performing Arts

Musicals and The Performing Arts provide a captivating look at the work and passion behind incredible performers, choreographers, and composers. The documentary “Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present” covers the preparation process of the renowned performance artist, Marina Abramović. It follows the creation of her groundbreaking retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. With extensive behind-the-scenes footage, this documentary allows viewers to see the effort and intricacies involved in creating mesmerizing performances.

Comedy in History

Comedy in History documentaries aim to explore the evolution of humor, influential comedians, and the societal impact of laughter. Documentaries like “The Unbookables” offer an insightful look into the world of underground stand-up comedy, delving into the lives of comedians who face countless challenges to bring laughter to their audience. By highlighting both the struggles and triumphs of comedians throughout history, these documentaries bring a new perspective to the importance of humor in our lives.

Iconic Filmmakers

Ari Folman

Ari Folman is a renowned Israeli filmmaker known for his innovative animation techniques. His groundbreaking documentary, Waltz with Bashir, combines animation with interviews to recount the experiences of soldiers in the 1982 Lebanon War. The film received widespread acclaim for its striking visuals and powerful storytelling.

Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese, an influential American director, has made significant contributions to the world of documentary filmmaking. With his passion for music, Scorsese directed The Last Waltz and No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, showcasing the talents and narratives of artists like The Band and Bob Dylan. Scorsese’s documentaries offer a compelling glimpse into the lives of musicians and their impact on popular culture.

Errol Morris

Errol Morris is regarded as a pioneer in the documentary genre. His film The Thin Blue Line revolutionized the true crime documentary by re-examining the case of Randall Dale Adams, who was wrongfully convicted for the murder of a Dallas police officer. Morris’s innovative approach to filmmaking allowed for the blending of interviews, reenactments, and a haunting musical score, creating a chilling atmosphere that captivated audiences.

D.A. Pennebaker

D.A. Pennebaker is another influential documentary filmmaker, best known for his cinema verite style. His works, such as Dont Look Back and Monterey Pop, captured musicians like Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix during critical points in their careers. Pennebaker’s contributions to the documentary genre were instrumental in shaping the way filmmakers approach capturing reality on screen.

Award-Winning Documentaries

Oscar-Winning Documentaries

In the realm of historical documentaries, several films have earned the prestigious Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. These documentaries offer a powerful and informative insight into significant historical events and figures. One such notable film is Steve James’ The Square, which immerses viewers in the Egyptian Revolution and earned the documentary multiple awards, including three Emmys and a nomination for the 2014 Best Documentary Feature Academy Award.

Oscar-winning historical documentaries often cover various topics, ranging from ancient civilizations to modern-day conflicts. Some other noteworthy winners can be found in the list of Best Documentary Oscar-Winners since 1990, showcasing a variety of compelling stories that bring history to life.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

While not a historical documentary in the traditional sense, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters provides a fascinating look into the world of arcade gaming and the competitive spirit of the players who strive for high scores. Directed by Seth Gordon, this documentary delves into the rivalry between Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell as they compete for the title of world record holder in the classic arcade game Donkey Kong.

Not only is this documentary entertaining, but it also offers a deeper insight into the dedication and perseverance of these individuals. The King of Kong is often praised for its engaging storytelling and the unique perspectives it provides on the world of competitive gaming, making it a must-watch for fans of documentaries and gaming alike.

Documentaries on Various Topics

Health and Medicine

In the realm of health and medicine, history documentaries shed light on the evolution of medical practices, groundbreaking discoveries, and the individuals who contributed to advancements in healthcare. One such documentary is The Anthrax Attacks, which delves into the bioterrorism events of 2001 and investigates the aftermath of the attacks.

Architecture and Monuments

History documentaries on architecture and monuments offer unique insights into the construction, cultural significance, and preservation of various structures across the globe. Secrets of the Castle is a prime example, as the series explores medieval life and the rebuilding process of a historic castle. Venice, a city recognized for its architectural marvels, also deserves attention, with documentaries highlighting its intricate network of canals and the role of such structures in historical events.

Food Culture

Food has always been an essential part of human society, and history documentaries on food culture unravel the origins, evolution, and global influence of culinary traditions. From the earliest origins of communal dining to the contemporary fusion of flavors, these documentaries uncover the stories behind iconic cuisines and the people responsible for their lasting impact.