Fans of old mafia and gangster films are not always aware that some of the best films in that genre are actually documentaries, especially if you have any historical interest in the events that produced such well known films as The Godfather or Goodfellas. Documentaries show the grittier realism of the real criminals and events in their lives. While certainly less glamorous, documentaries open the door to a whole new understanding of gangster and mafia culture, lifestyle, and what drove individuals to build the criminal enterprises they depended on to survive.
And while biopics are one good way to get the background on individuals, they often glaze over less glamorous details and get the facts wrong, while documentaries are held to a higher standard in terms of getting the events reported correctly. Netflix has a strong backlog of documentaries about criminal enterprises, whether they be gangsters in England, or mafia leadership in the early years of America. Let’s take a look at some of the top instant streaming options for those fascinated by the history of organized crime.
1. Cartel Land
The Mexican Cartel is known for being a ruthless, violent operation. It terrorizes citizens on both sides of the border, while the Mexican government leaves many small towns to fend for themselves. Cartel Land shows us the stunning true story of vigilantes rising up to battle the Cartel. These militias arm and protect their villages, and operate with a swift, merciless brutality to protect their homes. The documentary itself is a breathtaking affair, putting the filmmakers right in the middle of what amounts to a war zone.
2. A Very British Gangster
Take a dive into the lives of one of Britain’s major underworld families and its leader, Dominic Noonan, a large bald man who doesn’t quite admit to murder on camera, but who still has quite the creepy vibe. That’s perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of the documentary. Unlike other historical films, which depend a great deal on interviews from family or victims while utilizing stock footage from that era, this film features an interview with Noonan himself, who is generally quite involved in the telling of his story.
3. Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger
This documentary takes an unfiltered look at one of America’s most notorious gangsters. For years, Whitey Bulger ruled Boston’s criminal underworld with impunity, thanks to his connections with the FBI. This is the man that Johnny Depp portrayed in 2015’s Black Mass.
4. Crips and Bloods: Made in America
The conflict between the Crips and Bloods is one that’s become both infamous and iconic in American culture. The origins of this battle date all the way back to the late-’60s and early-’70s, and even today it rages on in the streets of Los Angeles. Crips and Bloods: Made in America tracks that history, explores its roots in our country’s latent institutional racism, and paints a picture of just how deep this rivalry goes.
5. Cocaine Cowboys
This 2006 documentary film explores the rise of cocaine and the Miami Drug War, which spread through the city in the ’70s and ’80s. The film delves into interviews with law enforcement, journalists, lawyers, and gang members to provide viewers with a first-hand look at the drug war that ravaged Miami.
The film was directed by Billy Corben and produced by both Corben and Alfred Spellman.
Additional reporting by Nick Cannata-Bowman and Evie Carrick.
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