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The History of America in 30 Films (Part 3)

Imagine, if you will, a movie theater that, over the course of a single month, will show films covering the entire length of American history. Each night they’ll play a movie that evokes a certain period, moving chronologically to the present day.

Over the course of several articles, I’ll pretend to be the programmer for this imaginary theater, doing my best to capture America over 30 films. Each of these movies will serve as an entry in a larger story… think of it as the American Cinematic Universe.

Before reading up on one of the most tragic eras in American history, check out Part 1 for the Pre-Revolutionary history, as well as Part 2 for the early years following the country’s formation.

This week for Part 3, we’ll focus on the institution of slavery and the Civil War.

1839: Amistad (1997)

Dir. Steven Spielberg


Amistad certainly isn’t one of Steven Spielberg’s most beloved movies, but it fits in quite nicely on our timeline. It tells the story of a revolt on a slave ship, as well as the subsequent trial of those slaves once the ship reaches America. It even features Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams, who argues in defense of the Africans at the Supreme Court.

Historians have taken issue with several aspects of the film, so while it provides an insightful window into the slave trade, not all of the events depicted can be taken at face value. For our purposes in creating a portrait of America throughout history, Amistad admirably captures the tensions that would eventually lead to the Civil War; at the movie’s end, President Martin Van Buren is defeated for re-election, due in part to the Southern states viewing him as an enemy of slavery.

1841: 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Dir. Steve McQueen


One of the most recent films about slavery may also be the best. Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s memoir about a free man who is captured and sold into slavery is extremely intense, to say the least. This isn’t a cleaned up, Hollywood depiction of the institution; McQueen doesn’t hold back in depicting slavery in all its ugliness. Everything, from the script all the way to the period costuming, truly captures life as a slave in the mid-1800’s. It’s hardly an entertaining film, but it’s an absolutely essential one.

Though some of the individual facts in Northrup’s memoir are disputed (with the movie also taking a few dramatic liberties of its own), the film is so much more than just that story. In showing how one man suffered, McQueen creates a horrific, and largely accurate, depiction of what life might have been like for millions of others.

1861: Ride With the Devil (1999)

Dir. Ang Lee


Now we arrive at the conflict that began as a direct result of the institution of slavery in the United States. Incredibly, there aren’t any truly great films about the war itself. One day, some enterprising director will undoubtedly make the Civil War movie. Until then, others will have to do.

Ang Lee’s Ride With the Devil, received with a somewhat lukewarm response at the time of its release, has recently been reevaluated as a rather compelling take on the war. The movie tells the story of pro-Confederate guerrillas in Missouri during the early months of fighting. It’s unique in that, rather than focusing on the big battles, it turns its eye toward the lesser-discussed guerrilla warfare on the outskirts of the conflict.

Most of the characters here are fictional, but again, this is a movie that uses a made-up story to further explore some very real occurrences. Most Americans know the broad outlines of the Civil War from school, but fewer probably know about the events depicted here. Perhaps most importantly, Ride With the Devil captures what it must’ve been like for young Americans growing up during this tragic era of American history.

1863: Gettysburg (1993)

Dir. Ronald F. Maxwell


You’ll have to cancel most of your evening plans for this one. Gettysburg is a very long movie. In fact, its 254 minute runtime makes it one of the longest movies ever to be released by a mainstream Hollywood studio. Needless to say, you might end up learning more about the Battle of Gettysburg than you ever wanted to know. Director Ronald F. Maxwell covers all three days of what’s undoubtedly the most famous battle of the Civil War in painstaking detail. It’s like watching a giant reenactment captured on film. Some of it was actually filmed on actual battlefields (or in some instances, locations close to those battlefields).

Gettysburg is a fairly accurate portrayal of the battle, which is both a blessing and a curse. The attention to detail is incredible, but it often feels more like a history lesson than an actual movie. For history buffs, the fact that a studio actually released something this committed to accuracy (and with so little commitment to drama) is really kind of incredible. It might be a bit of a slog, but it absolutely belongs in any series devoted to American history.

1863: Gangs of New York (2002)

Dir. Martin Scorsese


If you look up the phrase “hot mess” in the dictionary, you’ll see the poster for Gangs of New York next to it. It’s an overly ambitious, sprawling movie with loads of script problems (and a pretty bad Cameron Diaz performance), but littered with moments of brilliance. It doesn’t hurt that Daniel Day-Lewis’s role as Bill the Butcher is one of his best (and showiest) performances. It’s an uneven film, that’s for sure, but it’s still a pretty good one.

Gangs of New York is included here to show some of the other stuff going on during the Civil War, aside from that whole war part. Scorsese truly captures the look and feel of the slums of Lower Manhattan in the 1800s. The costumes and set-design are pretty much perfect; it’s a colorful, intriguing world that, despite its violence and griminess, you’d just love to explore. It offers a picture of what life may have been like for residents of America’s largest city during the same era as the Civil War. And while the movie isn’t about the war explicitly, it does culminate in the bloody draft riots of 1863.

1865: Lincoln (2012)

Dir. Steven Spielberg


This marks the fourth time Daniel Day-Lewis has appeared in this series. His knack for appearing throughout American history is maybe even a little spooky. I swear I’m not choosing movies he stars in on purpose! Really, there’s no way Lincoln could be left out here. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner made a wise decision to forego the normal biopic formalities here; instead of telling his entire life-story, they instead focus on the momentous year of 1865. In the final months of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln is desperate to achieve passage of the 13th Amendment. Ultimately, as everyone reading is probably aware, his fight for the freedom of slaves results in his assassination.

As with many of the other movies we’ve covered here, Lincoln isn’t 100% accurate. How could it be? But many of the broad strokes are faithful to history, despite minor inaccuracies littered throughout.

It’s the perfect movie to end this chapter of American history, as we move closer to the 20th century and the (relatively) modern era.

If you haven’t already, check out Part 1 and Part 2 of the series to see how far we’ve come. Have an opinion? Drop it with us in the comments below.

5 thoughts on “The History of America in 30 Films (Part 3) Leave a comment

  1. I would definitely have to say Glory, however every film on this list is perfect for this era…will dances with Wolves or Wyatt Earp or the revenant make the next list is what I’m wondering

  2. Birth of a Nation should be on this list. This movie released only 50 years after the Secession war is a very interesting narration of the North/South conflict. The movie is both considered to be a cinematographic masterpiece (some genius shots in there) but was almost banned as it was heavily criticized for its depiction of afro-americans and for portraying the KKK has a heroic force.

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