When it comes to social-issue documentaries, Netflix has the market cornered. In recent years, the streaming platform’s original documentaries and docuseries have tackled everything under the sun, from business and politics to drug abuse and public-health crises.
For Netflix’s newest installment, “Recovery Boys,” Academy Award–nominated director Elaine McMillion Sheldon (“Heroin(e)”) delivers a revealing look at the opioid epidemic through the lens of four young men struggling to move on after years of addiction. Available to stream now on Netflix, the film tracks the men, newly sober, as they undergo a traumatic recovery process at a farming-based rehabilitation center and the distressing years that follow.
Today, with all eyes on the opioid crisis, Sheldon’s documentary provides something rare and valuable: an intimate study of progress and pain that serves to humanize rather than alienate. Here are five more Netflix documentaries that take a deep dive into contemporary social issues, shining a compassionate, investigative light onto the countless social problems plaguing our modern world.
Before “Recovery Boys,” Sheldon made a name for herself with the Oscar-nominated short documentary “Heroin(e),” another thoughtful portrait of the opioid epidemic rocking America. The film considers the crisis from a different angle than her follow-up: through the social institutions in Huntington, West Virginia striving to provide aid to a suffering city. Embedding herself in Huntington – known as the overdose capital of America – Sheldon highlights the efforts of three community women to break the city’s cycle of abuse and torment: a fire chief, a drug court judge, and the head of a local nonprofit.
Just a few minutes into the film, it becomes clear that this isn’t your standard drug documentary. Through the film, Sheldon remains dedicated to dismantling common misconceptions about the opioid epidemic – namely, that it’s a result of decaying social mores. “We, as a country, have to stop thinking of this as a moral failure and start looking at it as a medical issue,” she has said of the crisis. Brimming with empathy and humanity, “Heroin(e)” is an inspiring triumph – and it’s not hard to imagine “Recovery Boys” becoming just as influential.
“Take Your Pills”
There’s no question that America runs on amphetamines. From college students to Silicon Valley coders to suits on Wall Street, more and more people are turning to prescription stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin as their go-to method to sustain productivity in an overworked, profit-oriented society. Alison Klayman’s “Take Your Pills” probes America’s decades-long preoccupation with these drugs, unveiling a dubious, dangerous history of misuse — both by addicted users and Big Pharma sellers.
The timely documentary shines a spotlight on Adderall as the most frequently used upper among millennials, one that’s become so coveted that the majority of students who have prescriptions — the ones who presumably actually need it — end up trading it out to eager peers. And yet, because these so-called “study drugs” are on the market for their medicinal value, they don’t get the same bad rap as their not-so-distant cousins: criminalized substances like cocaine or heroin.
Discussing Adderall in the context of narcotics is undoubtedly radical, but Klayton’s film shows that the comparison isn’t as far from the truth as you might expect. Packed with facts, statistics, and personal anecdotes, “Take Your Pills” is a stimulating, urgent inquiry into a truly modern epidemic.
“Get Me Roger Stone”
“It’s better to be infamous than never to be famous at all,” reads one of Roger Stone’s wily rules for success. It’s an apt maxim. Over his long tenure as political lobbyist and consultant, Stone has gotten his hands dirty in almost every major political scandal you could name, from Watergate to the 2000 Brooks Brothers riot to, of course, the inauguration of a certain reality TV star turned American demagogue. Directed by Morgan Pehme, Daniel DiMauro, and Dylan Bank, “Get Me Roger Stone” charts Stone’s role in the Trump campaign, painting a picture of a sleazy business advisor defined by shady ethics and a dogged drive — not to mention his chalk-stripe suits and Nixon tattoo.
Intercutting fly on the wall sequences with original interviews and archival material, the documentary depicts Stone as untethered to any sort of moral compass, doing whatever it takes to get an advantage; the viral, anti-Hillary Clinton “Lock Her Up” chant was one that Stone conceived. In a political landscape increasingly defined by bizarre and hostile behavior, “Get Me Roger Stone” is a fascinating portrait of one of its most bizarre and hostile puppeteers.
Executive produced by Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, “Dirty Money” breaks the recent trend of docuseries focusing on one continuous story; instead, the six-episode series relies on an overarching theme of greed and corruption as its connective tissue. Each of the episodes is directed by a different filmmaker — including Fisher Stevens (“The Cove”) and Gibney himself — tackling a range of subjects. The result is sinister study of corporate vice, a Twilight-Zone-esque series that’s all too real.
The episodes consider businesses like Volkswagen and HSBC bank along with individuals like racketeer racing driver Scott Tucker and Donald Trump during his real estate tycoon era. Gibney’s episode kicks off the series with an expose on Volkswagen’s scheme to cheat emissions tests with diesel cars, all the while contaminating the air with pollutants: dirty toxins making dirty money. It’s a gripping opener, setting the scene and whetting our palate for a round of riveting — if squirm-inducing — episodes to come.
Flint, Michigan has been one of the most nationally scrutinized cities since 2016, when President Obama declared a federal state of emergency over the city’s contaminated drinking water. Impoverished, crime-ridden, and suffused with a general state of resentment for all things governmental, Flint was in crisis. This is the period traced and investigated in “Flint Town,” an eight-part series spanning the critical 12 months that followed the calamity.
The series zeroes in on the town’s police force, a department that consists of fewer than 100 officers forced to serve a city of 100,000. Through interviews and on-the-scene sequences, we get a sense of the community’s deeply entrenched racial divide, as well as its drug and depopulation problems. It’s a harrowing window into a modern American emergency, as informative and illuminating as it is ruthlessly raw.