The Best Documentaries on HBO Right Now (September 2021)

Why not learn something while being entertained?

HBO is best known for its fantastic original programming and first-run movies, but it also has a ton of great documentaries, and you can watch them all on HBO Max.

These documentaries teach us about the world and the human condition, open up windows on celebrities we never thought we'd get, and help illuminate some of the most pressing issues of our time. If you're just starting to get into documentaries, or you're not sure where to look next, we've compiled the best HBO has to offer for your convenience and edification.

01
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Nuclear Family (2021): The Story of an Unconventional Family

A scene from the HBO Max documentary 'Nuclear Family'

HBO

IMDb rating: n/a

Starring: Ry Russo-Young

Director: Ry Russo-Young

Rating: n/a

Episodes: 3

Sept 26

Nuclear Family is director Ry Russo-Young's intimate look at her own family and the struggles her gay parents faced in the 1980s. Featuring home videos, archival press footage, and interviews, it details how Sandra Russo and Robin Young tried to start their family during a time when same-sex marriage was illegal and they were denied access to sperm banks. So they turned to a mutual friend for help, ultimately kicking off a fraught custody battle.

02
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Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union (2021) – A Portrait of America's First Black President

President Obama giving a speech with Secretary of State John Kerry in the background.
President Obama announcing his decision to deny the Keystone XL Pipeline's Presidential Permit.

Getty

IMDb rating: 4.9/10

Starring: David Axelrod, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jelani Cobb

Director: Peter Kunhardt

Rating: TV-14

Runtime: 3 hours, 23 minutes

This multi-part documentary examines the life and career of former U.S. President Barack Obama. It uses archival interviews and speeches, plus it interviews many political experts like Jelani Cobb, Cornel West, Al Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson. Together, they weave a story about race and politics in America and the significance of the country electing its first Black president. 

03
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Hard Knocks '21: Dallas Cowboys (2021) – An In-Depth Look at 'America's Team'

Dallas Cowboys

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

IMDb rating: 8.5/10

Starring: Liev Schreiber, The Dallas Cowboys

Director: n/a

Rating: TV-MA

Episodes: 5

The latest season in the Hard Knocks documentary series takes a look at "America's Team," the Dallas Cowboys. They failed to make it to the playoffs for the second consecutive year in 2020 after losing to the New York Giants in week 17. Narrated by actor Liev Schreiber, the season follows the five-time Super Bowl champs during training camp and the preseason. Avid sports fans, and Cowboys fans in particular, will enjoy this behind-the-scenes look at the NFL.

04
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Small Town News: KPVM Pahrump (2021) – For Fans of Local Television News

A chicken walks by some television satellite dishes in 'Small Town News: KPVM Pahrump'

HBO

IMDb rating: 6.7/10

Starring: Vern Van Winkle, Deanna O'Donnell, Eunette Gentry

Director: n/a

Rating: TV-14

Runtime: 3 hours

This six-part documentary goes behind the scenes of a privately-owned TV station in the small town of Pahrump, Nevada. Featuring a colorful cast of characters, it shows the team working to extend their viewing audience into the greater Las Vegas area, combat financial troubles, and more. Avid news watchers will enjoy seeing how broadcasts come together behind the cameras.

05
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Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes (2021): A Showcase of Ronan Farrow's Pulitzer-Winning Journalism

Jon Lovett and Ronan Farrow

Getty Images 

IMDb rating: 7.2/10

Starring: Ronan Farrow, Ken Auletta, Fabio Bertoni

Director: Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato

Rating: TV-14

Episodes: 6

This six-part documentary series is based on Ronan Farrow's bestselling book and podcast Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies and A Conspiracy to Protect Predators. The Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist helped expose Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein as a sexual predator in 2017. Catch and Kill is his account of that investigation and the intimidation he received from high-priced lawyers and other operatives of the wealthy and powerful people who wanted the story to remain silent.

06
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Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018): Best Documentary for the Kid in All of Us

Fred Rogers
Was Fred Rogers hiding something under that long-sleeved sweater?. Deborah Feingold/Corbis via Getty Images

IMDb rating: 8.4/10

Starring: Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, John Rogers 

Director: Morgan Neville

Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Looking for a heavy dose of nostalgia? Won't You Be My Neighbor? details the life and career of beloved TV icon Fred Rogers, host of the children's television show Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. Over 900 episodes aired on PBS from the 1960s to 2001. If you're reading this, odds are you grew up with the kindly Mr. Rogers and his bevy of puppet friends. The film humanizes him while also confirming what most of us already knew—that Fred Rogers was a wonderfully empathetic human being who genuinely loved children.

07
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The Crime of the Century (2021): A Sobering Look at America's Drug Epidemic and Those Responsible

prescription drugs.

Owaki / Kulla / Getty Images 

IMDb rating: 8.2/10

Starring: Lenny Bernstein, Roy Bosley, Alec Burlakoff 

Director: Alex Gibney

Rating: TV-MA

Runtime: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Nearly 841,000 Americans died from a drug overdose between 1999 and 2019, according to the CDC. Opiate abuse is a serious problem in the country, and this two-part documentary turns a critical eye toward Big Pharma and the corrupt system that allows it to overproduce drugs and distribute them recklessly. With the help of leaked documents, whistleblowers, interviews with opioid addicts, and more, the series puts forth the argument that drug companies largely helped create an epidemic it's also profiting from while costing Americans thousands of lives.

08
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Exterminate All The Brutes (2021): An Examination of Colonialism and Whiteness

A scene from the HBO documentary 'Exterminate All the Brutes'

HBO

IMDb rating: 6.4/10

Starring: Josh Hartnett, Ettore D'Alessandro, Luis del Valle 

Director: Raoul Peck

Rating: TV-MA

Episodes: 4

Exterminate All the Brutes is the latest from filmmaker Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro). The four-part documentary series examines the history of European colonialism and the exploitative and detrimental effects it had on America and Africa. It also explores the impact colonialism has on today's society. Peck's previous work won near-universal acclaim for its examination of American race relations. Exterminate All the Brutes looks like it could be just as insightful.

09
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Generation Hustle (2021): A Series About the Pursuit of Fortune and Fame

Stock money

IMDb rating: 6.9/10

Starring: Brian Jones, James MacCallum, Gregory Mandarano

Director: Yon Motskin

Rating: TV-MA

Episodes: 10

Generation Hustle is a new 10-part docuseries from CNN and Jigsaw Productions about the pursuit of fame and fortune by younger generations. A lot of people, young and old, have a side hustle, YouTube channel, or Etsy store these days, which makes this documentary series instantly relatable.

10
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Tina (2021): Simply the Best

Tina Turner in the HBO documentary 'Tina'

Ryan Stetz (HBO)

IMDb rating: 9.2/10

Starring: Tina Turner, Angela Bassett, Oprah Winfrey

Director: Daniel Lindsay, T.J. Martin

Rating: TV-MA

Runtime: 1 hour, 58 minutes

This new HBO documentary offers a fresh look at music icon Tina Turner. It charts her early rise to fame, her struggles, and her return to household name status in the 1980s thanks to her album Private Dancer, an appearance in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and more. The film includes never-before-seen footage, audiotapes, photos, and interviews with celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Angela Bassett (who memorably portrayed Turner in the 1993 biopic What's Love Got to Do With It?).

11
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Tiger: A Look at One of Golf's Greats

Golfer Tiger Woods in the HBO documentary 'Tiger'

HBO

IMDb rating: 7.9/10

Starring: Tiger Woods

Director: Matthew Hamachek, Matthew Heineman

Rating: TV-MA

Episodes: 2

This new two-part documentary examines the life and career of famous golfer Tiger Woods. A child prodigy, he became one of the most celebrated athletes ever, but his dedication and obsession with the sport also led to a downward spiral that ended with an arrest, scandals, and an eventual comeback at the 2019 Masters. The series interviews some of Tiger's closest friends and family and, for the first time, interviews the woman at the center of the sex scandal that tarnished his reputation in 2009.

12
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The Lady and the Dale (2021): An Audacious Auto Scam

Elizabeth Carmichael in the documentary 'The Lady and the Dale'

HBO

IMDb rating: 6.8/10

Starring: Elizabeth Carmichael

Director: Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker

Rating: TV-14

Episodes: 1

This documentary film from Emmy-winning producers Mark and Jay Duplass details an ambitious auto scam perpetrated in the 1970s by an entrepreneur named Elizabeth Carmichael. She promised a fuel-efficient vehicle, called The Dale, at a time when Americans were suffering through a gas crisis. But, it was all a fraud, as investigators found out when they went to the factory she was supposedly manufacturing the cars at and found it empty. If you enjoy tales of audacious criminals, this is worth a look.

13
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Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults (2020) – A Look at America's Biggest Mass Suicide

Marshall Herff Applewhite, founder and co-leader of the religious cult Heaven's Gate, speaks to his followers via television.

Brooks Kraft LLC/Sygma via Getty Images

IMDb rating: 7.3/10

Starring: Robert Balch, Janja Lalich, Benjamin Zeller

Director: Clay Tweel

Rating: TV-MA

Episodes: 4

Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults is a four-part documentary series about the strange UFO-based religious movement that led to a tragic mass suicide. The series talks with former members and loved ones and includes never-before-seen footage and first-person accounts. Decades later, many just remember vague jokes about Nike shoes and Kool-Aid. This documentary is a good refresher on a chilling and unusual moment in U.S. history.

14
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The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart – An Iconic '60s Musical Trio

Barry Gibb, Maurice Gibb, and Robin Gibb of The Bee Gees

HBO

IMDb rating: 8.2/10

Starring: Barry Gibb

Director: Frank Marshall 

Rating: TV-MA

Runtime: 1 hour, 51 minutes

This documentary chronicles the lives of the 1960s musical trio The Bee Gees. The three brothers, Barry, Maurice, and Robin Gibb, wrote over 1,000 songs during their career. They had 20 No. 1 hits. Their biggest tune, "Stayin' Alive," was immortalized in pop culture thanks to the film Saturday Night Fever, actor John Travolta, and a flashy white suit. The documentary interviews Barry Gibb and features archival footage of Robin and Maurice. There's also never-before-seen concert performances, home videos, and interviews with a variety of notable musicians.

15
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Between the World and Me: An Adaptation of the Critically-Acclaimed Book

Artwork from the HBO documentary 'Between the World and Me.'

HBO 

IMDb rating: 7.4/10

Starring: Mahershala Ali, Angela Bassett, Courtney B. Vance

Director: Kamilah Forbes

Rating: TV-14

Runtime: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Between the World and Me is based on the critically-acclaimed best-selling book from Ta-Nehisi Coates. Written as a letter from Coates to his teenage son, it's a raw recounting of Coates' life and a sobering look at racial inequality in America. This film adaptation combines animation, archival footage, and appearances by Coates, Mahershala Ali, Angela Bassett, Oprah Winfrey, and many more. It's just as pointed as its source material, and just as relevant in America's current socio-political landscape.

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David Byrne's American Utopia (2020): A Joyous Meditation on Art

David Byrne performs in 'David Byrne's American Utopia.'

HBO

 

IMDb rating: 8.3/10

Starring: David Byrne, Chris Giarmo, Angie Swan

Director: Spike Lee

Rating: TV-14

Runtime: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Director Spike Lee has adapted Talking Heads frontman David Byrne and Brian Eno's show American Utopia, and it's a boisterous celebration of life and art. Talking Heads fans will enjoy classic songs like "Once in a Lifetime" and "Burning Down the House," along with a timely cover of Janelle Monae's "Hell You Talmbout." And if you're not a David Byrne fan, well, maybe this movie can convince you to convert.

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A World of Calm (2020): Most Relaxing Docuseries

Fish swim in the ocean in the documentary 'A World of Calm.'

HBO

IMDb rating: 7.7/10

Starring: Mahershala Ali, Idris Elba, Oscar Isaac

Directors: Ben Devlin, Karen McGann, Daniel M. Smith, Nic Stacey

Rating: TV-G

Episodes: 10

A World of Calm is a new, 10-episode docuseries from Nutopia, the team behind Nat Geo's One Strange Rock, and the makers of the meditation app Calm. It combines beautiful and serene nature footage with narration from a bevy of notable actors. Imagine chilling out to images of sea life while Idris Elba quietly spouts factoids at you. It's basically big-budget ASMR. The cast also includes Mahershala Ali, Oscar Isaac, Nicole Kidman, Zoë Kravitz, Lucy Liu, Cillian Murphy, and Keanu Reeves.

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John Lewis: Good Trouble (2020): A Tribute to an Inspiring Activist

A mug shot of civil rights activist John Lewis, following his arrest in Jackson, Mississippi for using a restroom reserved for 'white' people during the Freedom Ride demonstration against racial segregation, 24th May 1961.
A mug shot of civil rights activist John Lewis, following his arrest in Jackson, Mississippi for using a restroom reserved for 'white' people during the Freedom Ride demonstration against racial segregation, 24th May 1961. Kypros/Getty Images

IMDb rating: 7.1/10

Starring: Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez 

Director: Dawn Porter

Rating: PG

Runtime: 1 hour, 36 minutes

Good Trouble is a look at the life and activism of the late Congressman John Lewis, a prominent figure in the United States' Civil Rights movement. During his lifetime, he participated in thousands of protests, was arrested more than 40 times, and spent three decades as representative of Georgia's 5th congressional district. This portrait of his life is timely given America's current socio-political climate, and some of the archival footage is moving, especially when you consider how much of Lewis' work remains unfinished.

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