Movies and television shows bring history to life.
It is often easier to gain insight into the setting and characters we see on the screen that can engage us more than a textbook or the printed words on the page.
It would be impossible to gather all the historically American history-oriented movies here (documentary, non-fiction, fiction, and anywhere in between), but here is a brief list of movies and TV shows that illustrate the American story.
As this site might be geared toward high school students, please note that some of these are rated R, and others came out before current rating standards. Be sure to check with an adult at home before viewing. Some content, like the history it portrays, is graphic and depicts real-life events which can be challenging.
* titles are hyperlinked to their cinematic trailer
** most all of the descriptions are by rottentomatoes.com
The New World
Arriving with a British expedition in Virginia in 1607, Capt. John Smith (Colin Farrell) is captured by Native Americans. His life is spared thanks to Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher), daughter of the tribe's chief. Smith and Pocahontas fall in love, to the mutual dismay of the Native Americans and the British. Smith is sent away, and his death is reported. An unhappy Pocahontas marries settler John Rolfe (Christian Bale). When Smith turns up alive, Pocahontas is torn between the two men.
After married man John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis) decides to break off his affair with his young lover, Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder), she leads other local girls in an occult rite to wish death upon his wife, Elizabeth (Joan Allen). When the ritual is discovered, the girls are brought to trial. Accusations begin to fly, and a literal witch hunt gets underway. Before long, Elizabeth is suspected of witchcraft, and John's attempt to defend her only makes matters worse.
The last members of a dying Native American tribe, the Mohicans -- Uncas (Eric Schweig), his father Chingachgook (Russell Means), and his adopted half-white brother Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) -- live in peace alongside British colonists. But when the daughters (Madeleine Stowe, Jodhi May) of a British colonel are kidnapped by a traitorous scout, Hawkeye and Uncas must rescue them in the crossfire of a gruesome military conflict of which they wanted no part: the French and Indian War.
The HBO series chronicles the life of John Adams's political and personal life. The events covered include the Boston massacre, Declaration of Independence, his travels to Europe looking for an alliance with nations and his final years. This is a seven part adaptation of David McCullough's book on John Adams: the founding father and second president of USA.
The original Broadway production of the award-winning musical that tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, first secretary of the treasury, blending hip-hop, jazz, R&B and Broadway styles, filmed from the Richard Rogers Theater in New York.
A dramatization of George Washington's perilous gamble of crossing the Delaware River and attacking the Hessian forces at Trenton.
Mel Gibson portrays Benjamin Martin, an unassuming man who is forced to join the American Revolution when the British threaten to take his farm away from him. Together with his patriotic son, Gabriel, the pair faces the vicious Redcoats with a heroism that reflects the stubborn pride of a young country's most dedicated supporters.
Birth of a Nation (2016)
Nat Turner is an enslaved Baptist preacher who lives on a Virginia plantation owned by Samuel Turner. With rumors of insurrection in the air, a cleric convinces Samuel that Nate should sermonize to other slaves, thereby quelling any notions of an uprising. As Nate witnesses the horrific treatment of his fellow man, he realizes that he can no longer just stand by and preach. On Aug. 21, 1831, Turner's quest for justice and freedom leads to a violent and historic rebellion in Southampton County.
*note that there are two miniseries of the same name.
The original one came out in 1977 (the description below is of this series), and was remade more recently in 2016.
The landmark dramatization of Alex Haley's classic saga followed his ancestors from Africa into slavery and then to their freedom in the post-Civil War South. Americans watched in record numbers as the epic aired on eight consecutive nights and went on to receive an unprecedented 37 Emmy nominations (winning for nine, including Outstanding Limited Series). Haley wrote in TV Guide, "Roots' speaks of the American human drama, in which ancestrally we all came from somewhere across the ocean."
Roots 1977 trailer
Roots 2016 trailer
In 1839, the slave ship Amistad set sail from Cuba to America. During the long trip, Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) leads the slaves in an unprecedented uprising. They are then held prisoner in Connecticut, and their release becomes the subject of heated debate. Freed slave Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) wants Cinque and the others exonerated and recruits property lawyer Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) to help his case. Eventually, John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) also becomes an ally.
1836 Gen. Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) organizes a rebel army to liberate Texas from the brutal rule of Mexican dictator General Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarría). Though vastly outnumbered, Gen. Houston's volunteer army includes such folkloric figures as Jim Bowie (Jason Patric) and Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton). As Santa Anna's forces advance on San Antonio, the legendary general and his men prepare for a final heroic standoff at a battle-worn mission called the Alamo.
12 Years a Slave
In the years before the Civil War, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. Subjected to the cruelty of one malevolent owner (Michael Fassbender), he also finds unexpected kindness from another, as he struggles continually to survive and maintain some of his dignity. Then in the 12th year of the disheartening ordeal, a chance meeting with an abolitionist from Canada changes Solomon's life forever.
From her escape from slavery through the dangerous missions she led to liberate hundreds of slaves through the Underground Railroad, the story of heroic abolitionist Harriet Tubman is told.
This war drama depicts one of the biggest events of the American Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg. The massive three-day conflict begins as Confederate General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen) presses his troops north into Pennsylvania, leading to confrontations with Union forces, including the regiment of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels). As the battle rages on and casualties mount, the film follows both the front lines and the strategic maneuvering behind the scenes.
With the nation embroiled in still another year with the high death count of Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln brings the full measure of his passion, humanity and political skill to what would become his defining legacy: to end the war and permanently abolish slavery through the 13th Amendment. Having great courage, acumen and moral fortitude, Lincoln pushes forward to compel the nation, and those in government who oppose him, to aim toward a greater good for all mankind.
Following the Battle of Antietam, Col. Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) is offered command of the United States' first all-African-American regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. With junior officer Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes), Shaw puts together a strong and proud unit, including the escaped slave Trip (Denzel Washington) and the wise gravedigger John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman). At first limited to menial manual tasks, the regiment fights to be placed in the heat of battle.
Free State of Jones
In 1863, Mississippi farmer Newt Knight serves as a medic for the Confederate Army. Opposed to slavery, Knight would rather help the wounded than fight the Union. After his nephew dies in battle, Newt returns home to Jones County to safeguard his family but is soon branded an outlaw deserter. Forced to flee, he finds refuge with a group of runaway slaves hiding out in the swamps. Forging an alliance with the slaves and other farmers, Knight leads a rebellion that would forever change history.
In this classic story of love and devotion set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, a wounded Confederate soldier named W.P. Inman (Jude Law) deserts his unit and travels across the South, aiming to return to his young wife, Ada (Nicole Kidman), who he left behind to tend their farm. As Inman makes his perilous journey home, Ada struggles to keep their home intact with the assistance of Ruby (Renée Zellweger), a mysterious drifter sent to help her by a kindly neighbor.
Gangs of New York
Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a young Irish immigrant released from prison. He returns to the Five Points seeking revenge against his father's killer, William Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), a powerful anti-immigrant gang leader. He knows that revenge can only be attained by infiltrating Cutting's inner circle. Amsterdam's journey becomes a fight for personal survival and to find a place for the Irish people in 1860's New York.
Far and Away
Joseph (Tom Cruise) and his landlord's daughter, Shannon (Nicole Kidman), travel from Ireland to America in hopes of claiming free land in Oklahoma. The pair get sidetracked in Boston, where Joseph takes up boxing to support himself. When he loses a pivotal fight, the two are left penniless. Now faced with poverty, the two must find new ways to scrape by. As their affection for each other grows, Joseph questions whether he is truly what Shannon needs in her life.
The Color Purple
An epic tale spanning forty years in the life of Celie (Whoopi Goldberg), an African-American woman living in the South who survives incredible abuse and bigotry. After Celie's abusive father marries her off to the equally debasing "Mister" Albert Johnson (Danny Glover), things go from bad to worse, leaving Celie to find companionship anywhere she can. She perseveres, holding on to her dream of one day being reunited with her sister in Africa. Based on the novel by Alice Walker.
During World War I, two British soldiers -- Lance Cpl. Schofield and Lance Cpl. Blake -- receive seemingly impossible orders. In a race against time, they must cross over into enemy territory to deliver a message that could potentially save 1,600 of their fellow comrades -- including Blake's own brother.
(I know, I know... not quite American history, but a terrifically visceral recent film which you might enjoy)
Iron Jawed Angels
Oscar-winner Hilary Swank stars in a fresh and contemporary look at a pivotal event in American history, telling the true story of how a pair of defiant and brilliant young activists took the women's suffrage movement by storm, putting their lives at risk to help American women win the right to vote.
Filmed in the coal country of West Virginia, "Matewan" celebrates labor organizing in the context of a 1920s work stoppage. Union organizer, Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper), a scab named "Few Clothes" Johnson (James Earl Jones) and a sympathetic mayor and police chief heroically fight the power represented by a coal company and Matewan's vested interests so that justice and workers' rights need not take a back seat to squalid working conditions, exploitation and the bottom line.
Political boss Enoch 'Nucky' Thompson runs Atlantic City at the dawn of Prohibition in this drama inspired by Nelson Johnson's non-fiction book 'Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City.'
During the Great Depression, ex-boxer James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe) works as a day laborer until his former manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti) offers him a one-time slot against a rising young contender. After he wins a shocking upset, Braddock goes back into the ring full time, against the wishes of his frightened wife, Mae (Renée Zellweger). Dubbed "The Cinderella Man" for his rags-to-riches story, Braddock sets his sights on the defending champion, the fearsome Max Baer (Craig Bierko).
Laura McAllan is trying to raise her children on her husband's Mississippi Delta farm, a place she finds foreign and frightening. In the midst of the family's struggles, two young men return from the war to work the land. Jamie McAllan, Laura's brother-in-law, is everything her husband is not - charming and handsome, but he is haunted by his memories of combat. Ronsel Jackson, eldest son of the black sharecroppers who live on the McAllan farm, now battles the prejudice in the Jim Crow South.
Saving Private Ryan
Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) takes his men behind enemy lines to find Private James Ryan, whose three brothers have been killed in combat. Surrounded by the brutal realties of war, while searching for Ryan, each man embarks upon a personal journey and discovers their own strength to triumph over an uncertain future with honor, decency and courage.
Band of Brothers
A 10-part miniseries based on Stephen Ambrose's bestseller about a World War II unit called Easy Company, 2nd Battalion of the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, U.S. Army, that begins with their training in Georgia in the spring of 1942, follows them into France on D-Day and ends with the Allied victory in Europe in 1945.
During World War II, the Civil Aeronautics Authority selects 13 black cadets to become part of an experimental program at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The program aims at training "colored personnel" to become fighter pilots for the Army. However, discrimination, lack of institutional support and the racist belief that these men lacked the intelligence and aptitude for the job dog their every step. Despite this, the Tuskegee Airmen, as they become known, more than prove their worth.
Flags of Our Fathers
In February and March of 1945, U.S. troops fight and win one of the most crucial and costly battles of the war on the island of Iwo Jima. A photo of U.S. servicemen raising the flag on Mount Suribachi becomes an iconic symbol of victory to a war-weary nation.
The individuals themselves become heroes, though not all survive the war and realize it.
The true story of Pfc. Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), who won the Congressional Medal of Honor despite refusing to bear arms during WWII on religious grounds. Doss was drafted and ostracized by fellow soldiers for his pacifist stance but went on to earn respect and adoration for his bravery, selflessness and compassion after he risked his life -- without firing a shot -- to save 75 men in the Battle of Okinawa.
From the producers of Band of Brothers comes this epic 10-part miniseries that tells the true stories of three Marines battling in the Pacific theater during WWII.
In 1946, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), legendary manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, defies major league baseball's notorious color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) to the team. The heroic act puts both Rickey and Robinson in the firing line of the public, the press and other players. Facing open racism from all sides, Robinson demonstrates true courage and admirable restraint by not reacting in kind and lets his undeniable talent silence the critics for him.
Good Night, and Good Luck
When Senator Joseph McCarthy begins his foolhardy campaign to root out Communists in America, CBS News impresario Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) dedicates himself to exposing the atrocities being committed by McCarthy's Senate "investigation." Murrow is supported by a news team that includes long-time friend and producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney). The CBS team does its best to point out the senator's lies and excesses, despite pressure from CBS' corporate sponsors to desist.
As head of the FBI for nearly 50 years, J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) becomes one of America's most-powerful men. Serving through eight presidents and three wars, Hoover utilizes methods both ruthless and heroic to keep his country safe. Projecting a guarded persona in public and in private, he lets few into his inner circle. Among those closest to him are his protege and constant companion, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), and Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), his loyal secretary.
Ghosts of Ole Miss
In the fall of 1962, James Meredith walked onto the University of Mississippi campus and integrated the school under order and protection of the federal government. That same fall, the Ole Miss football team was in the midst of its only perfect season in school history. Fifty years later and based on Wright Thompson's examination of those events, Ghosts of Ole Miss explores the intersection of one of the most significant moments in the Civil Rights movement with a team of young men caught in the middle of history.
For thirteen extraordinary days in October of 1962, the world stood on the brink of an unthinkable catastrophe. Across the globe, people anxiously awaited the outcome of a harrowing political, diplomatic and military confrontation that threatened to end in an apocalyptic nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. Thirteen days captures the urgency, suspense and paralyzing chaos of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Ghosts of Mississippi
In this film based on actual events, black activist Medgar Evers (James Pickens Jr.) is murdered in 1963, and much of the evidence points toward white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith (James Woods). However, after two trials, De La Beckwith is acquitted twice by a jury of whites. Now, decades later in 1989, Evers' widow, Myrlie (Whoopi Goldberg), thinks she has evidence to finally convict him. But no lawyer will touch the case except the young and brash Bobby DeLaughter (Alec Baldwin).
Owen (Vicellous Reon Shannon) is a young man living in Mississippi at the dawn of the civil rights movement. Surrounded by racism, Owen looks for inspiration in dealing with oppression, while his father, Will (Danny Glover), prefers to keep his head down after his bad luck with protests in the past. Will expects his son to follow suit, but their relationship is put to the test when Owen starts joining in peaceful protests organized by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 legally desegregated the South, discrimination was still rampant in certain areas, making it very difficult for blacks to register to vote. In 1965, an Alabama city became the battleground in the fight for suffrage. Despite violent opposition, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and his followers pressed forward on an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, and their efforts culminated in President Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
This is the story of more than four hundred Americans who participated in a bold and dangerous experiment designed to awaken the conscience of a complacent nation. These self-proclaimed, 'Freedom Riders' challenged the mores of a racially segregated society by performing a disarmingly simple act.
Three brilliant African-American women at NASA -- Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) -- serve as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) into orbit, a stunning achievement that restored the nation's confidence, turned around the Space Race and galvanized the world.
Interracial couple Richard and Mildred Loving fell in love and were married in 1958. They grew up in Central Point, a small town in Virginia that was more integrated than surrounding areas in the American South. Yet it was the state of Virginia, where they were making their home and starting a family, that first jailed and then banished them. Richard and Mildred relocated with their children to the inner city of Washington, D.C., but the family ultimately tries to find a way back to Virginia.
In the summer of 1967, rioting and civil unrest starts to tear apart the city of Detroit. Two days later, a report of gunshots prompts the Detroit Police Department, the Michigan State Police and the Michigan Army National Guard to search and seize an annex of the nearby Algiers Motel. Several policemen start to flout procedure by forcefully and viciously interrogating guests to get a confession. By the end of the night, three unarmed men are gunned down while several others are brutally beaten.
After leaving the South as a young man and finding employment at an elite hotel in Washington, D.C., Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) gets the opportunity of a lifetime when he is hired as a butler at the White House. Over the course of three decades, Cecil has a front-row seat to history and the inner workings of the Oval Office. However, his commitment to his "First Family" leads to tension at home, alienating his wife (Oprah Winfrey) and causing conflict with his anti-establishment son.
(perhaps not the most historically accurate movie on this list... but you'll learn some shrimp recipes)
Slow-witted Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) has never thought of himself as disadvantaged, and thanks to his supportive mother (Sally Field), he leads anything but a restricted life. Whether dominating on the gridiron as a college football star, fighting in Vietnam or captaining a shrimp boat, Forrest inspires people with his childlike optimism. But one person Forrest cares about most may be the most difficult to save -- his childhood love, the sweet but troubled Jenny (Robin Wright).
Good Morning, Vietnam
Radio funny man Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams) is sent to Vietnam to bring a little comedy back into the lives of the soldiers. After setting up shop, Cronauer delights the G.I.s but shocks his superior officer, Sergeant Major Dickerson (J.T. Walsh), with his irreverent take on the war. While Dickerson attempts to censor Cronauer's broadcasts, Cronauer pursues a relationship with a Vietnamese girl named Trinh (Chintara Sukapatana), who shows him the horrors of war first-hand.
Born on the Fourth of July
In the mid-1960s, suburban New York teenager Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise) enlists in the Marines, fulfilling what he sees as his patriotic duty. During his second tour in Vietnam, he accidentally kills a fellow soldier during a retreat and later becomes permanently paralyzed in battle. Returning home to an uncaring Veterans Administration bureaucracy and to people on both sides of the political divide who don't understand what he went through, Kovic becomes an impassioned critic of the war.
Famed labor organizer and civil-rights activist Cesar Chavez (Michael Peña) is torn between his duty to his family and his commitment to securing a living wage for farm workers.
Katharine Graham is the first female publisher of a major American newspaper -- The Washington Post. With help from editor Ben Bradlee, Graham races to catch up with The New York Times to expose a massive cover-up of government secrets that spans three decades and four U.S. presidents. Together, they must overcome their differences as they risk their careers -- and very freedom -- to help bring long-buried truths to light.
In 1972, Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) and his then-lover Scott Smith leave New York for San Francisco, with Milk determined to accomplish something meaningful in his life. Settling in the Castro District, he opens a camera shop and helps transform the area into a mecca for gays and lesbians. In 1977 he becomes the nation's first openly gay man elected to a notable public office when he wins a seat on the Board of Supervisors. The following year, Dan White (Josh Brolin) kills Milk in cold blood.
On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists seize control of United Airlines Flight 93 and three other planes. As realization of the imminent horror dawns on passengers, crew and loved ones on the ground, the courageous acts by those held hostage in the air count down in actual time.
The Hurt Locker
Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are members of a bomb-disposal unit in Baghdad. As their tour of duty enters its final weeks, the men face a set of increasingly hazardous situations, any of which could end their lives in an explosive instant.
What are some of your favorites?