The Best Documentaries on HBO Right Now (February 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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Fake Famous (2021): Exploring Society's Obsession with Internet Popularity

Three aspiring social media influencers pose for selfies in key art for the documentary 'Fake Famous'

HBO

IMDb rating: n/a

Starring: Christopher Bailey, Shannon Dee, Dominique Druckman

Director: Nick Bilton

Rating: TV-MA

Runtime: 1 hour, 27 minutes

Fake Famous takes three Los Angeles people with small social media followings and attempts to turn them into influencers by buying fake followers and bots. Each of the three—an aspiring actress, a fashion designer Chris, and a real estate assistant—experiences this grab at online stardom differently as they watch their audiences grow exponentially. This film is for anyone who's ever been obsessed with the number of likes, follows, or retweets they've gotten on their posts.

02
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Black Art: In The Absence Of Light (2021) – Highlighting Up-and-Coming Artists of Color

Artist Amy Sherald paints a portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama in the documentary 'Black Art: In the Absence of Light'

HBO

IMDb rating: n/a

Starring: Amy Sherald

Director: Sam Pollard

Rating: n/a

Runtime: n/a

Black Art: In the Absence of Light highlights up-and-coming Black visual artists like Amy Sherald, whose portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama instantly became iconic when it debuted in 2017. Sherald, along with painter Kehinde Wiley, were the first African-Americans to receive presidential portrait commissions from the National Portrait Gallery. The film looks at them and their work, along with other artists of their generation, detailing their creative process and their impact on Black culture.

03
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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.

04
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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: n/a

Starring: Elizabeth Carmichael

Director: Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker

Rating: n/a

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.

05
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Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults (2020): A Look at the U.S.'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.

06
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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.

07
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Baby God (2020): Peeling Back the Layers of an Unfathomable Crime

Dr. Quincy Fortier in the documentary 'Baby God.'

HBO

IMDb rating: 5.8/10

Starring: Quincy Fortier

Director: Hannah Olson

Rating: TV-MA

Runtime: 1 hour, 18 minutes

Dr. Quincy Fortier was a fertility specialist who helped hundreds of couples have children. Later, it was revealed he used his own sperm to impregnate women without their permission. Baby God examines the effect his work had on the children he produced, and on his alleged sexual abuse of family members. Decades later, many of the children grapple with identity issues and the magnitude of their father's crimes.

08
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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.

09
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The Mystery Of DB Cooper: One of America's Most Enduring Mysteries

Artist sketches of DB Cooper.

FBI.gov

IMDb rating: 6.6/10

Starring: Miles Richardson, Hannah Pauley, Peter Caulfield

Director: John Dower

Rating: TV-14

Runtime: 1 hour, 25 minutes

The man known as "DB Cooper" is responsible for the only unsolved plane jacking in U.S. history. In 1971, Cooper hijacked a Boeing 727 between Portland and Seattle. He jumped out of the plane somewhere over Washington State with a parachute and $200,000. He was never heard from again. The FBI maintained an active investigation for 45 years after the hijacking, but the case remains unsolved. This new documentary takes a look at the case and profiles four people believed to be the infamous Cooper.

10
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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.

11
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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

Director: n/a

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.

12
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The Soul Of America (2020): A Timely Look at America's History

american_flag_on_porch
American Flag on Porch. Joanna McCarthy / The Image Bank / Getty

IMDb rating: 7.1/10

Starring: George Takei, John Grisham, Jon Meacham

Director: Katie Davison

Rating: TV-PG

Runtime: 1 hour, 17 minutes

The Soul of America is a timely documentary based on the best-selling book by Jon Meacham. Like Meacham's work, the film takes a look at the U.S.'s current political climate and its past. Abraham Lincoln once called on the "better angels of our nature," and the documentary paints portraits of him and other presidents, including Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon B. Johnson, along with citizen activists, civil rights pioneers, and more. The premise of the film and the book is that America has seen dark days before and found ways to prevail, and it's a much-needed message right now.

13
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John Lewis: Good Trouble (2020): A Tribute to an Inspiring Activist

John Lewis
Congressman John Lewis was a Freedom Rider. zflickr.com

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.

14
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The Perfect Weapon (2020): A Chilling Look at Cyberwarfare

Computer code appears over a city street in 'The Perfect Weapon.'

HBO

IMDb rating: 7.2/10

Starring: Dmitri Alperovitch, John Stimac

Director: John Maggio

Rating: TV-MA

Runtime: 1 hour, 27 minutes

Based on the best-selling book by New York Times national security correspondent David E. Sanger, The Perfect Weapon is about the rise of cyber warfare between nations and how it's kind of America's fault. It features interviews with top members of the military, intelligence, and political fields and spans the globe, traveling from Las Vegas to Iran, Beijing, Moscow, and more.

15
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Ravi Patel's Pursuit of Happiness (2020): Best Rumination on Life's Biggest Questions

Ravi Patel shares a drink with friends in 'Rave Patel's Pursuit of Happiness'

HBO Max 

IMDb rating: 8.3/10

Starring: Ravi Patel

Director: n/a

Rating: TV-MA

Episodes: 4

Ravi Patel's Pursuit of Happiness is a buddy comedy docuseries that follows actor Ravi Patel as he travels the globe looking for some of life's answers. His stops include Mexico, Japan, Korea, and Denmark, where he discusses topics like aging and retirement, parenting and gender roles, work/life balance, and immigration. Usually accompanied by a friend or family member, Patel offers his own unfiltered opinions and struggles on all of these topics while comparing social norms both in the U.S. and abroad.

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