This holiday season, moviegoers can learn about World War I with 1917, the Atlanta Olympics bombing with Richard Jewell, automotive history with Ford v. Ferrari, World War II maritime battles with Midway, the Underground Railroad with Harriet and that’s not even touching the streaming services where the likes of Jimmy Hoffa and The Irishman reign. Each year, Hollywood mines our past to tell us stories about our present through biopics, epic sagas and much more.
The past decade has been no exception, either, but with the explosion of social media and the web, viewers have at their fingertips the opportunity to learn the real history behind their favorite films. Yet is that even the responsibility of the filmmaker to hew to the facts? How much dramatic license is acceptable? What can we learn from the memory of history as portrayed onscreen?
As a historian, I grapple with those matters regularly, including every Sunday night when I lead my fellow historians on Twitter in the Historians At The Movies discussion. Each Sunday, historians engage with moviegoing audiences at home via Twitter to dissect films. We laugh, we cry, we historicize. But we do it as a community, using the hashtag #HATM; it’s tremendous fun and a great way to enjoy history, film and friends at the same time.
But here’s where I come down. Historical films don’t even need to be all that historical. Outside of documentaries, almost every film will take liberties with real-life events (ahem, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). That’s all right, too. What makes the films below successful is they take what’s found in the archive and history books and interpret it in a fascinating and digestible format. This list if far from comprehensive or complete, I encourage you to add your own in the comments, but as I looked back on the 2010s here are ten of the best films and one documentary about America’s past sure to inspire the historian in all of us.
The Witch (2015)
Was colonial New England this frightening? Director Robert Eggers dares anyone to leave for North America with this horrifying tale of a Puritan family exiled from Plymouth Colony. The Witch is a slow-burn contemplation on the centrality of religion and the fear of damnation in 17th-century lives and a jarring one at that. It looks and sounds beautiful—some of the dialogue is actually taken from the historical record—and allows viewers to not only see the colony, but to fear it.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
This compelling adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir of the same name portrays the kidnapping of a free black man from New York who is then sold into slavery on a Louisiana plantation. Solomon, heartfully portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, becomes witness for the audience to see first-hand the horrors of chattel slavery. The film unflinchingly captures the daily struggles of enslaved people, along with their resistance against a system designed to exploit their bodies and their labor. 12 Years a Slave is by no means easy to watch, but the very reasons that make it difficult are the same that make it necessary.
Contemporary audiences may consider that the 13th Amendment’s passage was inevitable in the twilight of the American Civil War. Lincoln shows us this was not so. Adapted largely from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the movie chronicles the maneuvers of the president and his administration to end slavery, even if it meant prolonging the war. Scenes such as when Lincoln (a never-better Daniel Day-Lewis) espouses the legality of the Emancipation Proclamation, or during his exchanges with Gloria Reuben’s Elizabeth Keckley, Jared Harris’ Ulysses S. Grant, and Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln helps us to better understand the Illinois Rail Splitter. Director Steven Spielberg goes beyond the politician to show not only Lincoln the President, but also Lincoln the husband and father to demonstrate how an imperfect man navigated the country through its most terrible crisis.
Free State of Jones (2016)
Interested moviegoers are not bereft of films focused on the Civil War—this year’s superb Harriet, for instance, finally gave the Underground Railroad operator her cinematic due—but films that tie the war, Reconstruction, and the mid-20th century together number about one.
Free State of Jones flailed at the box office, but don’t let that deter you from viewing what is arguably the best Civil War film since 1989’s Glory. Drawn in part from the work of historian Victoria Bynum, the film centers on the actions of Newton Knight (Matthew McConnaughey), a Confederate defector in southeast Mississippi who coupled with Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an enslaved Creole woman who bore him a child.
Unlike many Civil War films, Free State of Jones continues well past 1865 to show the failures of Reconstruction. Mahershala Ali, playing freedman Moses, emerges as the heart of the film’s final 40 minutes, which illuminate the victories won and hardships endured by black folk after the Union victory at Appomattox. Interlaced with the stories of Newt, Rachel and Moses is the court case of the Knights’ descendant Davis, who was arrested and tried on charges of miscegenation in 1948. Free State of Jones is not a traditional “feel good” film where the good side triumphs; it leaves the audience with a sense of uncertainty about the future.
Midnight in Paris (2011)
At what point do history and nostalgia cross the line? How does one complicate the other? The 2011 romantic comedy, featuring a spellbinding cast, seeks to answer these queries. Owen Wilson’s screenwriter Gil crosses into 1920s Paris one night where he meets his muse, Adriana (Marion Cotillard). Along the way they encounter Adriana’s American ex-pat friends, such as Gertrude Stein, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and a cartoonish Ernest Hemingway, whose laughable machismo steals every scene he is in—“Who wants to fight?” Midnight in Paris plays fast and loose with its characterizations (and besides, Avengers: Endgame has already shown that most assumptions about time travel are false, anyway). But that’s not the point. Ultimately Gil realizes that nostalgia is longing for an imagined past to which he can never really belong, and learns to embrace the present. Even as Woody Allen’s real-life history makes his films understandably unpalatable for some, Midnight in Paris reminds viewers that perhaps some other future will long for our time today.
Ava DuVernay’s first entry on this list follows civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. in the months leading up to the iconic 1965 Selma to Montgomery March. DuVernay asks us not to know not only King but to know the Civil Rights Movement through King. Selma is at the same time the story of a man and his community and that of a movement striving for voting rights long denied. Come for David Oyelowo as King, but stay for performances by Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King and Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon B. Johnson. Stay for the entire cast, actually. The movie is filled with incredible performances throughout its 128-minute run time. Selma ends on a triumphant note, though viewers may find its calls for social justice elusive some 54 years later.
Hidden Figures (2016)
Hidden Figures proved a hit upon its release late in 2016, racking up more than $230 million at the box office. The film chronicles three African-American women, who beginning in 1961 challenged racism and sexism at NASA to assert their positions within the agency. Based on a book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures spotlights the lives of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson to illustrate the lived experiences of African-American women employed by NASA at the time. This movie lets us think about other stories waiting to be broadcast to broad audiences. Hidden Figures offers no easy answers to the problems of the era, but few on this list can rival its potential to inspire.
“It’s time, Robbie! It’s time! They knew and they let it happen! To KIDS!” implores Mark Ruffalo as journalist Mike Rezendes to Michael Keaton’s Robby Robinson, his editor, in Spotlight. What begins as a Boston Globe investigation into a single priest’s sexual assaults against children soon balloons into an exposé about widespread abuse within the Boston Archdiocese.
Journalists are in some ways the historians of the present. This movie is at its best when director Tom McCarthy meticulously details the Spotlight team’s archival research, leading to its groundbreaking story. Powered by a cast including Liev Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery and Brian d’Arcy James, Spotlight has been called the best newspaper movie since All the President’s Men (1976). Spotlight is better.
The Big Short (2015)
Unless you are 5 years old or so, reading this at home or at work, you have lived through the worst financial depression since 1929. Director Adam McKay, working from a book by journalist Michael Lewis, manages to chronicle the downfall of the American mortgage market via a combination of humor and bewilderment. Several films emerged about the economic crisis during this period, namely Margin Call (2011) and Too Big to Fail (2011), but none are as imaginative as The Big Short. (A genius move of McKay’s is to intersperse the film with fourth-wall-breaking actors to explain complicated financial jargon. Anthony Bourdain hawking halibut stew to define Collateralized Debt Obligation? Yes, please.) Harkening to the straight comedy Trading Places (1983) years before, the film manages to be both a critique of capitalism and greed, while the central characters all attempt to get rich in the meantime. McKay’s light touch over such a heavy topic makes The Big Short the cinematic equivalent of a velvet jackhammer.
The heart of superb, historical film may always be the documentary. DuVernay’s 13th is a powerful dissection of race, class, law, and power in the years following slavery’s abolition. Drawing upon commentary from activists and scholars such as Angela Davis, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Van Jones, Kevin Gannon, Michelle Alexander, Khalil Muhammad, and others, the film shows how local and federal laws continue to exploit a loophole in the 13th Amendment to keep African-Americans in a system of mass incarceration and disenfranchisement. 13th is a gut punch to the assumptions of American freedoms and opportunities, and a needed one. There is no more powerful film made in the past decade.
Black Panther (2018)
Good histories connect our past to our present. The best histories not only link us to the generations who came before, but imagine a better future based upon learning from these experiences. The Marvel movie is rife with African history—its visual and musical stylings call upon African arts and traditions to assert the centrality of the African past in the global present. Black Panther wrestles with real questions—how do we as a global society come to terms with centuries of African slavery and racial inequality? What steps do we make from here? Writers Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole pull no punches in addressing the effects of European colonialism on the African continent and its diaspora. The hero, T’Challa, and the villain, N’Jadaka (Eric “Killmonger” Stevens) represent opposing responses to the crisis of colonialism. His victory complete, T’Challa closes the film with an assertion of black power—and black permanence—on the world stage. Black Panther dreams of an African utopia, but for American audiences, the promise of black equality emerging from its own complicated history remains.
Jason Herbert is a doctoral candidate in American History at the University of Minnesota and instructor at The Pine School in Hobe Sound, Florida. He is also the creator of Historians At The Movies (#HATM), a weekly film session that connects historians and the public across the world. You can find him on twitter at @herberthistory.