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January 12, 2021 4 min read


 Still, with the explosion of social networking and the internet, viewers have at their fingertips the chance to learn the actual history behind their favorite movies.  However, is that even the obligation of the filmmaker to hew to the truth?  How much is a dramatic license, okay?  What do we learn from the memory of history as depicted onscreen?

The Witch (2015)

 Was colonial New England this frightening?  Director Robert Eggers wants everyone to leave for North America with this horrifying story of a Puritan family exiled from Plymouth Colony.  The Witch is a slow-burn contemplation about the centrality of religion and the fear of damnation within 17th-century lives and a jarring one in that.  It looks and sounds beautiful--some of this dialogue is taken from the historical record--and allows audiences to find the colony and 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 in New York who is subsequently sold to slavery on a Louisiana plantation.  Solomon, heartfully described by Chiwetel Ejiofor, becomes a witness for the viewer to see firsthand the horrors of chattel slavery.  The film unflinchingly captures the daily struggles of enslaved men and women, along with their immunity against a system built to exploit their bodies and their labor.  12 Years a Slave is by no means easy to watch, but the very reasons which make it hard are the same, which make it necessary.

Lincoln (2012)

 Contemporary audiences may consider that the 13th Amendment's passage was unavoidable in the American Civil War’s twilight.  Lincoln shows us this wasn't so. Adapted mostly from Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the movie chronicles the president’s maneuvers and his administration to end slavery, even if it meant prolonging the war. 

 Scenes such as if Lincoln (a never-better Daniel Day-Lewis) espouses the legality of the Emancipation Proclamation, or throughout his trades with Gloria Reuben's Elizabeth Keckley, Jared Harris' Ulysses S. Grant, and Sally Field's Mary Todd Lincoln helps us to understand the Illinois Rail Splitter better.  Director Steven Spielberg extends beyond the politician to reveal on the President and Lincoln, the husband and dad to demonstrate how an imperfect guy 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--that year's excellent Harriet, for instance, finally gave the Underground Railroad operator her cinematic due--but movies that tie the War, Reconstruction, and the mid-20th century collectively number about a single.

Free State of Jones flailed in the box office, but don't let that deter you from seeing what is arguably the very best Civil War movie since 1989's Glory.  Drawn in part in the work of historian Victoria Bynum, the film centers on the action of Newton Knight (Matthew McConnaughey), a Confederate defector in southeast Mississippi who combined 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 demonstrate Reconstruction’s failures.  

Selma (2014)

Ava DuVernay's first entry on this listing follows civil rights pioneer Martin Luther King, Jr. in the months leading up to the iconic 1965 Selma to Montgomery March.  DuVernay asks us not to know not just King but to understand the Civil Rights Movement through King.  Selma is precisely the same time the narrative of a man and his community, and this movement trying for voting rights long denied.   Stay for the whole cast.  The movie is filled with incredible performances throughout its 128-minute run time.  Selma ends on a triumphant note, even though audiences may find its calls for social justice elusive some 54 years later.

Hidden Figures (2016)

Hidden Figures demonstrated a hit upon its launch late in 2016, racking up over $230 million at the box office.  The movie chronicles three African American ladies, who started in 1961, challenged racism and sexism at NASA to maintain their agency positions.  Based on a book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Statistics spotlights the lives of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson to illustrate that the lived experiences of African-American women employed by NASA at the time.  This film lets us consider other stories waiting to be broadcast to broad audiences.  Hidden Figures offers no simple answers to the era’s issues, but few on this list can equal its capability to inspire.

Spotlight (2015)

"It's time, Robbie!  It's the time!  They understood, and they let it happen!   Implores Mark Ruffalo as journalist Mike Rezendes to Michael Keaton's Robby Robinson, his editor, in Spotlight.  What starts as a Boston Globe investigation into one priest's sexual assaults against children soon balloons to an exposé about widespread misuse within the Boston Archdiocese. Journalists are, in specific ways, the historians of the current.  This picture is at its finest when manager Tom McCarthy meticulously details the Spotlight group's archival research, leading to its revolutionary story.  

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