Some of the best documentaries on YouTube prove that the age-old idiom "the truth is stranger than fiction" often still applies. A true crime story from the 90s? Sure. A sneak peek into the life of Paris Hilton? Sign me up, as YouTube recommends.
Documentary filmmaking itself has enjoyed an uptick in interest and popularity in recent years thanks to the virality associated with Netflix's Tinder Swindler, Making a Murderer, The Keepers, or Dahmer, and HBO's The Jinx and Showtime's Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee.
Whether you have already depleted your documentary supply on Netflix, don't feel like paying for another subscription, or are simply reluctant to binge on an 8-seasons-15-episodes-long series – we've done a deep dive to unearth the 20 best documentaries on YouTube that'll make you fall down a YouTube rabbit hole.
Running the gamut, we have a bit of everything: shocking true crime, calming nature shows, or fashion documentaries for a more lighthearted watch — our list of the best documentaries on YouTube (in no particular order) collectively speaks to themes involving grief, redemption, justice, humor, and majestic beauty.
Here are the 20 best documentaries on YouTube you can watch for free:
1. Beyond The Spotlight: MrBeast (2022)
Channel: Curiosity Stream (355K subscribers); also on HBO Max
MrBeast, aka Jimmy Donaldson, has built a YouTube empire through his generosity and joy in helping others. With over 9 million views, Beyond The Spotlight: MrBeast (2022) is one of the most-watched documentaries on YouTube. Handing out Lamborghinis and throwing money at his pals in some of the videos, many still assume Donaldson is a frat kid who comes from money. However, this documentary will likely change your mind.
MrBeast shot to fame after giving away money after going viral for his Squid Game video. Through first-hand interviews with MrBeast himself, his family, and his friends, the story unfolds his journey to success through consistency and hard work. Like most things in life, success didn't come overnight and took consistency and hard work.
2. Life In A Day (2020)
Channel: Life in a Day (576K subscribers)
Life In A Day is an attempt by director, Kevin Macdonald, to provide a glimpse into what a typical 24-hour experience is like for people worldwide. This film awakens a sense that it is every bit as much as winning the lottery. Life in a Day (2020) is a follow-up to the original Life In A Day (2010), a huge success with over 18M views on YouTube.
Ambitious in its scope, he utilized tens of thousands of YouTube submissions by contributors from several countries who submitted self-filmed videos of their days. From a Greek fisherman's life in a small village to a big-city life, Life in a Day follows the banality of work, relationships, obligations, and harrowing experiences based on where a particular person grew up.
3. Our Planet - Forests (2020)
Channel: Netflix (25.1M subscribers)
The incredible docuseries Our Planet is by far one of the best YouTube documentaries. Originally a Netflix series, it is entirely free to watch on YouTube. It explores the natural beauty of our planet and the effects of climate change, examining different nature topics in several hour-long episodes.
The fact that the show is narrated by Sir David Attenborough makes it even more unique, as there's hardly a better person to bring awareness to these topics. This episode, Our Planet: Forests, explores how truly resilient wildlife is and follows the recovery of damaged and closed-off ecosystems such as Chernobyl.
4. The Next Black (2014)
Channel: AEG (18.7K subscribers)
The Next Black is a film that explores the future of fashion. While that is a large and overarching concept, each facet of exploration awakens things you probably haven't even considered. For instance, what does it truly mean to be sustainable? How is technology aiding us, and why is the industry a leading producer of pollutants worldwide?
In an age where clothing is made for less utilitarian purposes than fifty years ago, the documentary challenges what it means to be "into clothes." Through interviews with industry experts, including people from adidas, Patagonia, biological textiles innovation brand BioCouture, and fashion technology company Studio XO, this YouTube documentary unveils what drives the industry forward.
5. Choke - A Rickson Gracie Documentary (1995)
Channel: Combat Life (14.9K subscribers)
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has enjoyed an uptick in interest in recent years thanks to the usage of the discipline in MMA. Choke - A Rickson Gracie Documentary on YouTube delves into the life of the legendary Jiu-Jitsu master Rickson Gracie, the Brazilian with a 9th-degree red belt, as he prepares to fight the Vale Tudo in Tokyo, Japan.
Once in a while, a warrior comes to show what the human race is capable of. The Gracie family is undoubtedly the biggest name in the martial art — touting one black belt after another. In 1995, cameras followed around Rickson Gracie (who at the time held a record of 398-0) and two other fighters as they prepared for the Vale Tudo Japan tournament — a no-holds-barred, eight-man contest without weight classes.
6. Dirty Girls (2013)
Channel: Michael Lucid (14K subscribers)
In the spring of 1996, a senior in high school, Michael Lucid, began documenting the lives of two 8th-grade girls, Amber and Harper. The two girls had become the subject of torment from their classmates for what is described in the opening crawl as "crass behavior and bad hygiene."
The film is awakening on multiple levels. It touches on the anti-establishment sentiment that had begun bubbling up thanks to the grunge movement in music and how cliques are formed in high school. It also delves into how even preteens could identify with riot grrrl messages - an underground punk movement during the early 90s.
7. J. Cole: 4 Your Eyez Only (2017)
Channel: Dreamville (1M subscribers)
This YouTube documentary, J. Cole: 4 Your Eyez Only, was initially aired on HBO on the 15th of April in 2017 to promote the release of his new album carrying the same name – 4 Your Eyez Only. The documentary, directed by J. Cole & Scott Lazer, features snippets of music from the album featured during the one-hour video and has a deeper meaning.
J. Cole, one of the best rappers in the world, goes directly to misrepresented areas across the nation to have honest conversations with the communities. Every candid conversation illustrates the inequalities and their frustrations – with these systemic inequalities incorporated in his lyrics.
8. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)
Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne's 2008 documentary is particularly poignant because he was friends with the subject of the film, Andrew Bagby, who was found shot dead in a park in Pennsylvania. What differentiates it from other crime films is its focus on the victim and people who loved him rather than the gruesome crime.
As the police investigation begins to hone in on his ex-girlfriend, who fled to Canada, the true crime drama gets an added dimension after it is revealed the woman in question was, in fact, pregnant with Andrew's baby.
9. The Marathon Cultivation (2022)
Channel: Free Documentary (299K subscribers)
Nipsey Hussle (Nipsey Hu$$le) was a legendary American rapper who rose to success in the West Coast hip-hop scene around the mid-2000s. He collaborated with several high-profile musicians, including Snoop Dogg and Drake. Hussle, then 33, was tragically gunned down just outside his Marathon Clothing store in LA.
Through the Marathon Clothing store, Hussle was aiming to provide opportunities and do good for his community. The Marathon Cultivation documentary delves into the complex legacy story of Hussle and his dedication to building up his neighborhood of Hyde Park. It was released a month before the opening of the second Marathon Clothing store project led by his older brother Samiel Asghedom.
10. The Real Story of Paris Hilton (2020)
Channel: Paris Hilton (1.24M subscribers)
Before there were Instagram influencers and TikTok creators, there was Paris. A celebrity for being a celebrity, Paris Hilton is the daughter of the Hilton Hotels conglomerate Conrad Hilton. Hilton rose to fame after starring in the reality TV show The Simple Life (2003-2007) along with her friend Nicole Richie.
Paris didn't shoot into the limelight until her ex-boyfriend Rick Salomon leaked her sex tape in 2001. The Paris "that's hot" Hilton documentary delves into a socialite-turned-businesswoman's life and how the events really unfolded, overturning claims the video was leaked on purpose.
11. A Certain Kind of Death (2012)
Channel: havoctrend (17.6K subscribers)
One of the great mysteries that exists today is what happens to our bodies after we die? In A Certain Kind of Death, filmmakers Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh ask a much simpler question: what literally happens to a deceased person's body if they have no next of kin?
This honest, uncensored, and undramatized documentary is about the normality of life and death. Compared to some newer documentaries, it's as raw as it can get, standing out for its realness. However, I should warn you that the fact that nothing is blurred makes it much more shocking to watch.
12. Child of Rage (1990)
Channel: MarkLegg (4K subscribers)
In 1990, HBO turned their cameras on a young girl, Beth Thomas, whose erratic and violent behavior left her adoptive parents unsure of what they should do. You can still, however, watch this 1990 documentary on YouTube.
As a perceived threat to them, her sibling, and herself, Child of Rage isn't an easy watch, and at times you will have the urge to turn it off. However, it's one of the most prominent examples of how past traumas inform the behaviors of people we all tend to put in the same box: dangers to society.
13. Freeload: America's Train-Riding Nomads (2022)
Channel: Real Stories (5.82M subscribers)
Freeload: America's Train-Riding Nomads is an eye-opening documentary with real insight into the lives of freighthoppers. The ones with no desire to conform to mainstream society's views and beliefs, instead doing and living in a way that makes them happy.
The self-produced documentary follows two people traveling across the US, hopping from train to train without having a permanent home, doing whatever they want in between. A very raw and honest depiction of very different lifestyles by choice, how they are judged by society, and the reason behind their choices.
14. Cobra Gypsies (2015)
Channel: Raphael Treza (402K subscribers)
Raphael Treza is a talented independent documentary filmmaker specializing in nature topics and tribes in various parts of the world. From getting acquainted with south Thailand's sea gypsies to exploring Nepal's tribe on a hunt for natural psychoactive substances, Treza's documentaries are as wildly fascinating as they are unique.
Treza's second movie, Cobra Gypsies, is one of the best documentaries on YouTube, with over 46 million views and 281 thousand likes. Cobra Gypsies, a busking-financed documentary, follows the extraordinary life and traditions of nomadic dancers – the Kalbeliya Gypsies – a casteless traveling tribe of the Thar Desert, Rajasthan, northern India.
15. Moon Landing - The World's Greatest Hoax? (2021)
Channel: Free Documentary (299K subscribers)
Did you know that a surprisingly large number of people still believe the Moon landing was an elaborate hoax staged by NASA? Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin were the first to walk the moon in 1972 – but people are still divided. Conspiracy theories are still a common phenomenon across cultures.
Moon Landing The World's Greatest Hoax investigates both sides of the story. Testing various theories, recreating the landing, and interviewing industry experts and the opposing side – the conspiracy theorists, Moon Landing tries to validate what ensued. A true story or, as some still believe, an elaborate scheme to trump Russia's space race?
16. Kung Fu Revolution(s) (1/6) (2022)
Channel: ARTE.tv Documentary (234K subscribers)
Views: 878 (uploaded October 2022)
The ARTE.tv Documentary YouTube channel is a top source for diverse topics and indie-ish documentaries for international fans covering political, cultural, and historical matters. The Kung Fu Revolution(s) explores the life of Bruce Lee and his journey to an acting phenomenon over six approximately 10-minute-long episodes.
In Hollywood, the kung fu icon Bruce Lee was instantaneously recognized for his physical fighting skills but not taken seriously enough for his acting talent. Poised to become successful but unable to find acting roles in the US, Lee returned to Hong Kong, after which he became a worldwide sensation, and the rest is history.
17. World's Scariest Drug (2012)
Channel: VICE (16.4M subscribers)
Colombia is one of South America's most popular destinations with vibrant cities, serene islands, and impressive natural wealth, unfortunately often overshadowed by its fight against drug trafficking. VICE, a go-to channel for some of the best documentaries on YouTube, goes to Colombia to shed light on another dangerous drug – Scopolamine, also known as "The Devil's Breath" or "the truth serum."
The World's Scariest Drug documentary unpacks what the horror drug with hallucinogenic effects can do. Through first-hand interviews with people who've contracted the substance, the documentary reveals the horrifying, saddening real-life stories of its consequence.
18. A Killer on Floor 32
Channel: ABC News (14.9M subscribers)
On the 1st of October in 2017, a 64-year-old man Stephen Paddock started shooting down at a large crowd gathered for the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada, from the neighboring 32nd-floor room window of the Mandalay Bay hotel.
A Killer on Floor 32 documentary unveils shocking unseen footage of the most deadly mass shooting in modern US history. The tragic incident killed 60 and injured more than 400, with the panic that ensued bringing the count of injured to over 850 people, with the shooter later found dead by suicide.
19. Dark Web (2021)
Channel: Janson Media (855K subscribers)
Anyone using the Internet can become a cyberattack victim. More than just fake emails – Dark Web (2021) explains the fight against cybercriminals from the government's perspective. This YouTube documentary highlights cybercriminals' sophisticated and ever-evolving techniques and the government's battle against them using artificial intelligence (AI).
For someone completely new to the cybercrime space, Dark Web is an incredibly insightful and eye-opening documentary on YouTube, completely free to watch. However, at times, the information can sometimes be a little misleading and one-sided (e.g., Dark Web requires special software).
20. A Murder In The Family (2016)
Channel: Real Stories (5.82M subscribers)
A Murder in The Family delves into the true story that happened in 2002 when a British businessman was killed in his sleep in the Philippines. This YouTube documentary is a heartbreaking story of the mother of the victim, Margaret Davis, attempting to prove her daughter-in-law, Evelyn, was the one responsible.
With nearly 6 million subscribers, the Real Stories channel releases at least three new full-length documentaries a week, including one of the most-watched documentaries on YouTube, Brain Man: The Boy With The Incredible Brain, with over 12 million views.