The 20 Best Documentaries on HBO Right Now (October 2020)

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
of 20

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

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

HBO

 

IMDb rating: 8.0

Genre: Documentary, Musical

Starring: David Byrne, Chris Giarmo, Angie Swan

Director: Spike Lee

Rating: n/a

Running Time: 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.

02
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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: n/a

Genre: Documentary

Starring: Mahershala Ali, Idris Elba, Oscar Isaac

Director: n/a

Rating: n/a

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 immersive imagery with narration from a star-studded cast that includes Mahershala Ali, Idris Elba, Oscar Isaac, Nicole Kidman, Zoë Kravitz, Lucy Liu, Cillian Murphy, and Keanu Reeves. Each half-hour episode is built to help calm your nerves and soothe your mind. And we could all use a little of that in 2020.

03
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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: n/a

Genre: Documentary

Starring: n/a

Director: Katie Davison

Rating: n/a

Running Time: n/a

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 political 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.

04
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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: 6.6

Genre: Documentary

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

Director: Dawn Porter

Rating: PG

Running Time: 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 U.S.'s 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.

05
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Siempre, Luis (2020): Best Pick for 'Hamilton' Fans

Luis A. Miranda Jr. gets a medical checkup in 'Siempre, Luis.'

HBO 

IMDb rating: n/a

Genre: Documentary

Starring: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Luis Miranda

Director: John James

Rating: TV-MA

Running Time: 1 hour, 34 minutes

Siempre, Luis follows Luis A. Miranda Jr. over the course of a year as he organizes relief efforts following Hurricane Maria and works to bring his son Lin-Manuel's Broadway blockbuster Hamilton to the island nation. Described as "an unstoppable force of nature," Miranda's passion for his homeland and his family is evident, and the film portrays his struggles with humor and heart.

06
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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: n/a

Genre: Documentary

Starring: n/a

Director: John Maggio

Rating: TV-14

Running Time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Based on the best-selling book by New York Times national security correspondent David E. Sanger, The Perfect Weapon takes a look at the rise of cyberwarfare between nations and how they use it to sabotage one another. 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.

07
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Too Beautiful: Our Right to Fight (2018): Best Boxing Documentary

Namibia Flores Rodriguez in 'Too Beautiful: Our Right to Fight'

Revolver Amsterdam

 

IMDb rating: 8.7

Genre: Documentary

Starring: Namibia Flores Rodriguez, Aliuska Rafaela Pantoja Avila, Miguel Alejandro Pantoja Avila

Director: Maceo Frost

Rating: n/a

Number of Episodes: 1

Too Beautiful: Our Right to Fight follows Namibia Flores Rodriguez, Cuba's most notable female boxer, as she fights against a government ban on women's competitive boxing. The film follows her training at Havana's Rafael Trejo Arena, where she undergoes the same unrelenting regime her male counterparts do. It was shot close to her 40th birthday, the cutoff age for participating in the Olympics. Too Beautiful also shows Rodriguez's mentorship and influence on other women in the Caribbean nation who also want to box. The struggle to be taken seriously is something many women can relate to, and the perspective of an athlete outside the U.S. is refreshing to watch, even as the film breaks your heart.

08
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I'll Be Gone in the Dark (2020): Best True Crime Documentary

James Joseph DeAngelo, a.k.a the Golden State Killer, in 'I'll Be Gone in the Dark.'

HBO

 

IMDb rating: 7.4

Genre: Documentary

Starring: Patton Oswalt, Paul Haynes, Lauren Orlando

Director: Liz Garbus

Rating: TV-MA

Number of Episodes: 6

Based on the book of the same name, I'll Be Gone in the Dark is the late writer Michelle McNamara's investigation into the Golden State Killer, who terrorized California in the 1970s and '80s. Over the course of those two decades, he committed 50 home invasion rapes and 12 murders. The documentary series speaks with the survivors and their families, along with McNamara's loved ones, and tells of an era when sex crimes were often hidden or dismissed. It also dives into our society's current fascination with true crime, and how unhealthy and destructive it can be. I'll Be Gone in the Dark is a moving look at trauma, grief, and obsession.

09
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Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland (2018): Best Race-Conscious Documentary

A selfie of Sandra Bland.
Sandra Bland. Sandra Bland/Facebook.com

IMDb rating: 6.5

Genre: Documentary

Starring: Sandra Bland, Robert E. Brzezinski, Brian Encinia 

Director: Kate Davis, David Heilbroner

Rating: TV-MA

Number of Episodes: 1

Sandra Blade was a politically active 28-year-old Black woman who was found hanging in her jail cell after being arrested for a traffic violation in Texas. Her death, and the dashcam footage of her arrest, went viral and led to national protests. Say Her Name follows the two-year case and tries to piece together what really happened to Bland. While the film doesn't have all the answers, it does a good job of centering Bland and her activism and highlighting issues that still plague America today.

10
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Being Serena (2018): Best Look at a Sports Icon

Serena Williams
Serena Williams of the USA plays a shot against Flavia Pennetta of Italy during Day 2 of the Rogers Cup at the Aviva Centre on August 11, 2015. Getty Images

IMDb rating: 5.7

Genre: Documentary

Starring: Serena Williams

Director: Ryan White

Rating: n/a

Number of Episodes: 5

Serena Williams needs no introduction. She's one of the most famous faces in sports. She's won 39 Grand Slam titles, four Olympic gold medals, and many other accolades. This documentary series focuses on two pivotal moments in her personal and professional life: the birth of her first child and her efforts to get back on the court afterward. Viewers get a look into her career, her family life, her role as a businesswoman, and more.

More than just a sports documentary, Being Serena is a portrait of Black motherhood and Black womanhood that's just as vital now as it was when the series premiered in 2018.

11
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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: n/a

Genre: Documentary

Starring: Ravi Patel

Director: n/a

Rating: n/a

Number of 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 the answers to some of life's biggest and most universal questions. 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.

12
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Hard Knocks: Los Angeles (2020): Best Documentary Series for Football Fans

Stock photo of a football field

Doug Wilson/Getty Images

IMDb rating: n/a

Genre: Documentary

Starring: Los Angeles Rams, Los Angeles Chargers

Director: n/a

Rating: n/a

Number of Episodes: 5

Hard Knocks: Los Angeles is the latest in HBO's Emmy Award-winning sports series about the National Football League. For the first time, the show follows the head coaches of two teams, the Los Angeles Chargers and the Los Angeles Rams. Since both are sharing a new home this season at SoFi Stadium, fans are getting a behind-the-scenes peek at both teams' training camp activities.

What's also notable is that Hard Knocks: Los Angeles was filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic. That means fans can expect a radically different training season, one filled with social distancing, mandatory temperature checks, and no preseason.

13
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McMillions (2020): Best Corporate Scam Documentary

McMillions

HBO

IMDb rating: 7.3

Genre: Documentary

Starring: Chris Graham, Doug Mathews, Amy Murray  

Director: James Lee, Hernandez, Brian Lazarte

Rating: TV-14

Episodes: 6

McMillions is the sort of documentary that tells a story so perfectly weird that it hardly seems possible. This six part docu-series explores how one man, with a little greed and some questionable choices, managed to defraud McDonald's out of $24 million dollars. That's a lot of Bic Macs.

The fraud, of course, was centered on the Monopoly sweepstakes game that McDonalds ran between 1989 and 2001, promising fantastic prizes for buying burgers and collecting game pieces. Featuring in-depth interviews with people involved in just about every aspect of this massive web of crime, McMillions shines a light on how perpetrator Jerry Jacobson was able to carry out this bizarre act of fraud and get away with it for so long.

14
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David Bowie: The Last Five Years (2018): Best Last Hurrah Documentary

David Bowie: The Last Five Years

HBO 

IMDb rating: 7.5

Genre: Documentary

Starring: David Bowie, Earl Slick, Gail Ann Dorsey 

Director: Francis Whately

Rating: TV-14

Running Time: 94 minutes

David Bowie: The Last Five Years comes to us from Francis Whately, the same director responsible for David Bowie: Five Years, an earlier documentary that covered Bowie's career from the late 1970s through the early 1980s. This doc, as the name implies, covers the final years of his life and was released on what would have been his 71st birthday.

Filmed toward the end of Bowie's life with his permission and seal of approval, this documentary provides a rare look into the massive burst of productivity that brought us Lazarus, The Next Day, and Blackstar. We learn a bit more about this mysterious and prolific artist, but are left, as always, wanting more.

15
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At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal (2019): Chilling Look at a Culture of Winning Over Everything

At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal

HBO 

IMDb rating: 8.1

Genre: Documentary

Starring: Rosemarie Aquilina, Aimee Boorman, Nadia Comaneci  

Director: Erin Lee Carr

TV Rating: TV-MA

Running Time: 88 minutes

Erin Lee Car's biting expose of USA Gymnastics and the monstrous Dr. Larry Nassar makes for uncomfortable viewing at times. Carr walks us through Nassar's numerous crimes, provides a window into the mind of this monster, and shines a light on the system that allowed him to continue victimizing young gymnasts for such a long time.

Featuring extensive first-hand testimony, both in the form of literal courtroom footage and interviews filmed for the documentary, At the Heart of Gold isn't a comfortable watch, but it is an important one.

16
of 20

I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter (2019): Best Crime Documentary

I Love You, Now Die

HBO 

IMDb rating: 7.5

Genre: Documentary

Starring: Jesse Barron, Emily Bazelon, Sam Boardman  

Director: Erin Lee Carr

TV Rating: TV-MA

Episodes: 2

The question this documentary posits is, "Do our words make us responsible for the actions they may cause others to take?" If you aren't yet familiar with the heartbreaking case of Michelle Carter and her boyfriend Conrad Roy, you're about to be. In this 2019 documentary, Carter stands accused of involuntary manslaughter, of having caused her boyfriend to kill himself through cruel and abusive text messages.

Regardless of which side you stand on, this might seem like a clear cut case. If that's the case, this two-part docu-series is likely to plant doubts in your mind. Carter may not be the irredeemable monster some think she is, but when our words spur others to action, might we not hold some responsibility?

17
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Atlanta's Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children (2020): Best Unsolved Crime Documentary

Atlanta's Missing and Murdered

 HBO

IMDb rating: 7.1

Genre: Documentary

Starring: Tony Axam, Monica Kaufman Pearson, Jim Procopio  

Director: Sam Pollard, Maro Chermayeff

TV Rating: TV-MA

Number of Episodes: 5

The material covered in this five part docu-series may seem familiar if you've watched the Netflix original series Mindhunter, as the second season of that show is a fictionalized version of real events. Atlanta's Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children is the real deal, taking a deep dive on the events that transpired between 1979 and 1981 in Atlanta, GA.

Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms reopened the unsolved cases of at least 30 young African-Americans who were either murdered or went missing nearly four decades ago. This docu-series examines what happens next, looking at previously unseen court documents, archival footage, and interviews that shine a light on this brutal period in Atlanta's past.

18
of 20

Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief (2015): Best Inside Look at Scientology

Going Clear

HBO 

IMDb rating: 8.0

Genre: Documentary

Starring: Paul Haggis, Jason Beghe, Spanky Taylor  

Director: Alex Gibney 

TV Rating: TV-MA

Running Time: 121 minutes

Going Clear is the deep dive into Scientology that you probably didn't realize you needed. Building on research done for Lawrence Wright's 2013 book of the same name, director Alex Gibney uses a mixture of interviews, reenactments, and real archival footage to explore a deeply critical look at Scientology in a way that few have attempted before.

With the help of ex-Scientologists like Spanky Taylor, John Travolta's one-time church liason, and Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis, Going Clear is able to paint a distressing picture of internal Scientology politics, including the mechanisms used to hold and control members.

19
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The Swamp (2020): Best Look at America's Broken Politics

(Left to Right) Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Ken Buck (R-CO), and Thomas Massie (R-KY) in 'The Swamp'

HBO

IMDb rating: n/a

Genre: Documentary

Starring: Ken Buck, Matt Gaetz, Ro Khanna

Director: Daniel DiMauro, Morgan Pehme

TV Rating: n/a

Number of Episodes: 1

Debuting on Aug. 4, The Swamp is a deep dive into the Washington political machine from the perspective of three Republican Congressmen—Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Thomas Massie (R-KY), and Ken Buck (R-CO). Over the course of a year, cameras follow these men during events like the Robert Mueller hearing and President Trump's impeachment (the film doesn't tackle the Coronavirus, though). The documentary examines how fundraising matters above all else in Washington, and how some politicians like Gaetz are finding different ways to raise money for their campaigns.

20
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Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind (2018): Best Look Inside a Brilliant Comedic Mind

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind

HBO 

IMDb rating: 8.0

Genre: Documentary

Starring: Robin Williams, Steve Allen, Robert Altman  

Director: Marina Zenovich

TV Rating: TV-MA

Running Time: 116 minutes

Robin Williams made us laugh and cry for decades with his impressive comedic and dramatic range, but very few really knew the man. Four years after his death by suicide, director Marina Zenovich brings us a fascinating look into his mind that comes across like it was intentionally narrated by Williams himself.

Peppered with footage and outtakes spanning Williams' career, and interviews with celebrity friends and acquaintances, Come Inside My Mind fills in the portrait of a complex and contradictory individual. Flashes of Williams' vulnerability shine through his quick wit and comedic genius, providing a better, if still painfully incomplete, understanding of the man behind the smiles and laughter.