The 25 best family-friendly documentaries you can stream right now

By Lauren Steele

We’re all burning through titles on our streaming platforms, and for good reason. There’s never been a better time to settle in and watch all the series and movies that have been lingering on our lists. But when you have kids under the age of 16, nightmare-inducing true crime series and the dark and ridiculous (and yes, addictive) titles that are currently dropping—we’re looking at you, Tiger King—probably aren’t what you’re looking for. That’s why we rounded up the 25 best family-friendly documentary titles currently available on HBO, Netflix, and Amazon Prime.

As a reminder, here’s how to sign up for every major streaming service—for free—right now.

Happy watching!

HBO

They Shall Not Grow Old
Directed by Peter Jackson, the Oscar-winning director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, this documentary uses restored archival footage from the Imperial War Museum to reveal the untold stories of World War I. It goes deep into the details of the Great War through the voices of actual soldiers. Oh, and the film has a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Enough said. Watch on HBO Go or Amazon.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor
Winner of the Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary Feature, this film is an homage to the compassion, intelligence, and positivity of the late television legend Fred Rogers, otherwise known as Mister Rogers. The movie leaves viewers feeling good—something we could all use right now. Watch on HBO Go or Amazon Prime.

Hoop Dreams
Winner of the Audience Award at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, this riveting documentary follows two basketball players for five years as they face challenges, victories, and setbacks while chasing their dreams to become professional NBA players. Even people who don’t like documentaries will find themselves completely enthralled. Watch on HBO Go or iTunes.

Unlocking the Cage
This film follows lawyer and animal-rights activist Steven Wise on a courtroom quest to change U.S. law and grant intelligent species—such as chimpanzees, whales, dolphins and elephants—human rights. Watch on HBO Go or iTunes.

 

How to Dance in Ohio
This poignant film explores the American coming-of-age tradition of formal dances by focusing on the experiences of a group of teens who are on the autistic spectrum. Watch on HBO Go or HBO Now.

When We Were Kings
There’s a reason this film won an Oscar for the Best Documentary Feature. It not only chronicles one of the most iconic boxing matches of all time—the “Rumble in the Jungle” between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, held in Zaire 1974—but it also dives into American culture at the time by chronicling the soul music festival (featuring James Brown and others) that accompanied the fight. Watch on HBO Go or HBO Now.

Netflix

13th
Filmmaker Ava DuVernay picks apart the racial inequality woven into the fabric of the U.S. justice system by detailing how—and why—American prisons are disproportionately filled with African Americans. This powerful and educational film changes perspectives. Watch on Netflix.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi
This doc offers a meditation on one man’s dedication to perfecting his craft in a 10-seat restaurant. It’s a tribute to amazing sushi and the perseverance of a chef—which is especially poignant at a time when independent restaurants are suffering. Perfect for foodies and mac-n-cheese junkies alike. Watch on Netflix or iTunes.

Knock Down the House
Director Rachel Lears chronicles the campaigns of four women—including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—as they run for Congress in 2018 mid-terms, the election that saw 529 women run for Congress. And although it’s only an hour and a half, it’s a punchy film, allowing viewers to watch as a bartender in the Bronx, a coal miner’s daughter in West Virginia, a grieving mother in Nevada, and a registered nurse in Missouri spearhead one of the biggest upsets in modern politics. Watch on Netflix.

Cutie and the Boxer
Cutie and the Boxer follows the inspiring—but turbulent—40-year relationship of two Japanese-born artists living in New York. The film moves between watching Ushio Shinohara fight to create his work and Noriko sacrifice hers for the sake of love, family, and creation. Watch on Netflix or Amazon Prime

 

Shirkers
Slow-paced and compelling, Shirkers is a first-person account of novelist and filmmaker Sandy Tan’s quest to find the first film she ever made—and the man who stole it from her, way back in 1992. There are plenty of twists and turns with a melancholic dash of stolen youth. Watch on Netflix.

The Bad Kids
Another doc with a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, The Bad Kids is an observational work that follows students at Black Rock Continuation High School, an alternative school for at-risk students in an impoverished community in the Mojave Desert. The film focuses on one principal and her unwavering support for her students. Watch on Netflix or iTunes.

Notes on Blindness
This film re-creates one man’s onset of blindness in the days before the birth of his son, based off the audio diary he created during his descent into sightlessness. It’s poetic, artistic, and heart-wrenching. Watch on Netflix or Amazon Prime.

E-Team
A film about the atrocities civilians suffer at the hands of dictators is never going to be easy to watch, but E-Team makes it as inspiring and hopeful as possible by following the Human Rights Watch Emergencies Team as they risk their lives working on the front lines in Libya and Syria. Watch on Netflix.

Sky Ladder
Sky Ladder follows the contemporary pyrotechnic artist Cai Guo-Qiang along his 20-year-long quest to create a ladder made of fireworks in the sky. This film chronicles Guo-Qiang’s journey—through his words and those of the people closest to him—from a troubled childhood to the moment he sees his dreams come true. It is an incredibly satisfying and “wow”-inducing film. Watch on Netflix.

Virunga
This 2014 Oscar-nominated documentary tells the story of four individuals who risk their lives to protect some of the world’s last mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park within the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s a wildlife documentary, a war film, and an exploration of corporate greed. Watch on Netflix.

 

Amazon Prime

One Child Nation
This film is offers an unflinching look China’s one-child policy, a population control policy which mandated that Chinese families were permitted to have only one child. The filmmakers were both born under the policy, which gives this award-winning doc even more depth. Watch on Amazon Prime.

Grizzly Man
Filmmaker Werner Herzog not only directed Grizzly Man, he also narrated it—creating a film that both comments on and documents a man’s fateful relationship with nature. This movie centers on the life and death of Timothy Treadwell, a man who spent 13 years largely cut off from civilization, living amongst Grizzly bears in the backcountry. It’s a tale of controversy and fool-hearted love. Watch on Amazon Prime or iTunes.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening
A beautiful and intimate look into the daily lives of the residents of Hale County, Alabama. More artistic and subjective than most documentaries, this one leads viewers to piece together for themselves the meaning behind its metaphors and musings on socioeconomic stratification, race, and the deep American South. Watch on Amazon Prime.

The Imposter
You have to see The Imposter to believe it. This film unravels a hugely unlikely tale of a pseudo-prodigal son—a young man named Frédéric Bourdin, who shows up one day to the grieving Barclay family in Texas claiming that he is their missing child. This film is stranger than fiction and will have you chilled by the time the credits roll. Watch on Amazon Prime.

4 Little Girls
Directed by Spike Lee, this recounts the fatal bombings at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama 1963. It’s a somber and heartfelt tribute to the four young girls who were attending Sunday school when the blast killed them. Watch on Amazon Prime or HBO Now.

I am Not Your Negro
Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, this documentary explores the lives of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr—and offers a meditation on race in America—through the notes, letters, and reminiscences of the James Baldwin. Watch on Amazon Prime or iTunes.

 

20 Feet From Stardom
All hail the backup singers! This doc is a fun celebration of the voices that didn’t have their name in lights, but were vital in showbiz and in creating some of the biggest hits of all time. And damn, these women can sing. Watch it on Amazon Prime or Netflix.

Mad Hot Ballroom
Imagine: wildly talented children dancing—no, this not an episode of a ridiculous reality TV show. This is Mad Hot Ballroom, a film that documents (hilarious) kids in NYC that have barely reached double digits in age, but are contenders for a perfect 10 while competing in a city-wide competition at the American Ballroom Theater in styles such as the foxtrot, merengue, and rumba. Watch on Amazon Prime or iTunes.

Science Fair
This film follows several different high school students from around the world as they face off against each other at an International Science Fair. Even if you never competed in a science fair yourself, this doc has a way of making the stakes feel extremely high—and you’ll find yourself rooting for and inspired by these students. Watch on Amazon Prime or Disney+.

 
 

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