The grills are being wheeled out and Old Navy is stocking up on plain white T-shirts because the Fourth of July is right around the corner. But as we celebrate Independence Day, it’s important to acknowledge the events and people who have shaped the United States — the good, the bad, and the ugly.
In honor of the Fourth of July, we’ve round-up a slew of documentaries available on Netflix, each breaking down a piece of U.S. history. Ranging from Ken Burns’ legendary PBS documentaries to Ava DuVernay’s masterful indictment on systemic racism in the criminal justice system, we’ve sought to provide a selection of documentaries that are thought-provoking, educational, and important for understanding the United States in 2018.
So in between BBQing with family and watching Fourth of July fireworks with a s’more in hand, take a minute — or many, tbh — to check out one or all of these eight documentaries.
The Civil War
In arguably his best known PBS documentary series, featuring some now-legendary sweeping shots, Ken Burns provides an expansive look at one of the most important and defining events in U.S. history, diving deeper into the war than our high school history curriculums ever allowed. The nine-part series, narrated by noted historian David McCullough, is certainly a commitment, but it’s an astounding, impactful examination of the Civil War and its effect on American society.
Watch The Civil War here.
The Roosevelts: An Intimate History
Alongside the likes of Washington, Lincoln, and Kennedy, the last name Roosevelt is almost synonymous with American history. As its title suggests, the seven-part PBS documentary examines the private, public, and political lives of three of the most iconic members of the famous family: 26th President Theodore Roosevelt, 32nd President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and game-changing first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Watch The Roosevelts here.
Consider this a one-stop shop sampling highlights — and certainly lows — of the 1970s. A follow-up to The Sixties, the CNN docuseries produced by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, The Seventies covers some of the biggest moments of the decade, including Nixon and Watergate, the Vietnam War, and the cultural revelation of TV in music. It’s not a deep-dive by any means, but serves a wide-ranging introduction to the complex decade.
Watch The Seventies here.
Referring to the Amendment abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude, Ava DuVernay’s powerful documentary is a searing indictment on the mass incarceration of black men in America. Using the loophole written into the 13th Amendment — “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” — the documentary explores 150 years systemic racism and racist practices that have fueled the U.S. prison. The documentary, which features interviews with figures ranging from Henry Louis Gates Jr. to Newt Gingrich, is an important examination of the criminal justice system, reminding viewers that the issue of mass incarceration isn’t new — the groundwork’s been there all along.
Watch 13th here.
Arguably one of the grossest examples of whitewashing in American history is the westward expansion of the United States. Produced by Burns and directed by collaborator Stephen Ives, The West follows the often-grisly reality of westward expansion via the belief in Manifest Destiny. In true Burns fashion, the nine-part PBS series is a close examination into U.S. expansion — with sweeping shots and beautiful music — not shying away from the decimation of Native Americans as the U.S. sought to grow or the greedy (and often violent) allure of the Gold Rush.
Watch The West here.
Bobby Kennedy For President
This year marks 50 years since the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, who died a day after being shot in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in L.A. after winning the 1968 California democratic primary. But while this Netflix docuseries from Dawn Porter does follow Bobby Kennedy’s presidential run and assassination, the title is definitely a bit misleading: the series really focuses on his role as one of the most influential supporting players in the ’50s and ’60, leaving viewers wondering what might have happened if he’d actually become president.
Watch Bobby Kennedy For President here.
Like its earlier-mentioned predecessor, The Eighties is another wide-ranging introduction to the decade, touching on the many people and events who shaped the decade, including Reagan, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, and the AIDS epidemic. The Eighties also expands on its predecessor’s covering of media, dedicating two episodes to the growing landscape of television and its impact on society.
Watch The Eighties here.
Prohibition is generally best remembered as a vignette following the decade-plus in which the United States attempted to be a nation of temperance, often romanticized through our Great Gatsby approach to the ’20s. But in this three-part PBS docuseries, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick dive deeper into the “great experiment,” exploring the rise of the temperance movement and the passing of the 18th Amendment, the rise of racketeering, its end with the passing of the 21st Amendment, and how it shaped ’20s culture.
Watch Prohibition here.