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.
Best World History Movies Of The Decade
Check out these selected titles and feel free to add to the list.
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.
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 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.