With just a few months of the year underway, 2021 has already bestowed upon us the gift of many thought-provoking documentary films. These documentaries range in subject matter, from art retrospectives and obscure cultural events to candid peeks into the lives of the world’s biggest pop stars—and most elusive personalities. Available on streaming platforms including Netflix, Amazon, HBO Max, and more, here are the best documentaries of 2021 so far.
Framing Britney Spears
Some have questioned just how fair The New York Times’s documentary on the pop star’s rise to superstardom in her teens and turbulent twenties actually is. But in 2021, Framing Britney Spears started a (belated) conversation about the way young women in the spotlight are treated by various media apparatuses—and how we address their plights in retrospect.
Where to stream: Hulu
Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry
Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry is a candid look into the life of one of the world’s biggest (and youngest) pop stars, her fame, and her family. And in case you were wondering, her team denies that the Grammy-winning artist received a $25 million dollar payday for producing the documentary.
Where to stream: Apple TV+
Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell
We think we know so much about the late Christopher Wallace—also known as The Notorious B.I.G. or Biggie Smalls—because of his cultural status as one of the greatest rappers of the 20th century. But, despite the urban legends surrounding him, his beef with Tupac Shakur, and his 1997 assassination, this documentary proves there is still so much to learn about the Brooklyn native.
Where to stream: Netflix
Sam Pollard’s documentary about government surveillance of the civil rights leader pores over theories that the FBI wanted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. dead, alongside recently declassified files from the 1950s and 1960s.
Where to stream: Apple
For Tina Turner, this documentary is a goodbye letter of sorts. It’s not necessarily an announcement of her permanent disappearance from the spotlight, but instead is a way to tell her fans one last time, in her own words, just how much her career and their adoration has meant to her. It’s also a venue to finally put to rest the trauma of reliving the turbulence of her marriage to Ike Turner, which she has talked about publicly countless times over the decades.
Where to stream: Premieres March 27 on HBO Max
Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir
Author Amy Tan, known for writing the 1989 bestseller The Joy Luck Club (and subsequent film of the same name), is the subject of a documentary that turned out to be the last film directed by the late James Redford (Robert Redford’s son). It premiered to critical acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival in 2021 and will hit PBS as part of their “American Masters” series in May.
Where to stream: Premieres May 3 on PBS
Trans in Trumpland
Executive produced by Trace Lysette, Chella Man, and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Trans in Trumpland is a four-part documentary series that honors the lives of transgender individuals living under the Trump administration’s various bans and discriminatory policies by letting them tell their own stories.
Where to stream: Amazon Prime, Topic
Black Art: In the Absence of Light
In Black Art, the impact of 200 years of art created by African-Americans is introduced to a mainstream audience. It’s only a small portion of the sometimes forgotten impact of Black artists in America, but it seeks to shine some light on the broad history by exploring a 1970s Black art exhibition that opened up doors for contemporary artists.
Where to stream: HBO Max
Demi Lovato: Dancing With The Devil
For the second time in her life, Demi Lovato has allowed YouTube to produce a docuseries about her life in the spotlight. After her overdose in 2018, the musician and actress began production on this four-part documentary, in which she dives deep into her struggles with addiction, mental illness, and trauma from sexual abuse.
Where to stream: YouTube
Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
At the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, Questlove premiered his directorial debut. The documentary tells the story of the Harlem Cultural Festival, which lasted for six weeks in 1969 and boasted performances from Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight, yet somehow remains an obscure cultural artifact.
Where to stream: July 2 on Hulu
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It
One of the 16 entertainers to have achieved EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards) status, Rita Moreno tells the story of her almost 90 years of life (nearly 80 of which have been in show business). From West Side Story to The Electric Company and One Day at a Time, the actress has had a career that people only dream of, and the documentary (which premiered at Sundance to critical acclaim) reflects that.
Where to stream: Rita Moreno will be released in theaters June 18.
Pelé, the 80-year-old Brazilian soccer legend, finally gets his due with a film that documents his rise to international superstardom at the age of 16 during Brazil’s turbulent 1960s.
Where to stream: Netflix
ROADRUNNER: A Film About Anthony Bourdain
How does one go about chronicling the vibrant life of an iconoclast like Anthony Bourdain? From sheer anonymity, the chef rose in the ranks of global gourmands, food writers, and bon vivants, all thanks to his best selling book, Kitchen Confidential. If you were a fan of No Reservations and Parts Unknown on CNN, you will undoubtedly be moved by Morgan Neville’s all-encompassing look at the man whose presence changed not only the restaurant industry, but American attitudes towards food and travel.
Where to stream: In theaters July 16
The life of visionary dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey is chronicled in this documentary that premiered at Sundance earlier this year. The language of Ailey’s choreography spoke to the experience of Black Americans, developing choreographies that communicated a poetry of movement that is recalled through Jamila Wignot's visually poetic point of view, comprised of archive footage and celebrity interviews.
Where to watch: In theaters July 23
Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed
Who would have thought that Bob Ross, the seemingly most calm, cool, and collected painter there ever was, would be at the center of some backstabbing business drama?
Where to stream: Netflix
In his 40-year Hollywood career, Val Kilmer has dedicated plenty of his off-screen time to record himself, archiving his image on film, and later mining that to put together a compelling documentary about his life and career.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime
Murdoch-ification of the tabloid and news entertainment industries (and the rise of one celebrity president) are documented in this four-part series, with a heavy focus on Cindy Adams (the famed Page Six gossip columnist who is very much still at it).
Where to stream: Showtime
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