6 films to watch to learn about US history

by Adriana Stein
October 16, 2020

Searching for a way to buff up your US history knowledge while also improving your English skills? There are some awesome movies to combine learning and entertaining. We’ve outlined our top 6 favourite films to watch – and many are even available on Netflix! 

Top 6 films to learn about American history

1. 12 Years a Slave

The film: Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Michael Fassbender, this movie follows the true story of the main character, Solomon Northrup, an enslaved Black man in the pre-Civil War US. Prior to enslavement, he was living freely in New York with his beloved wife and children. Later on, he was abducted and forced into slavery in 1841 in Louisiana. He spent 12 years working on plantations until he met a Canadian abolitionist and was able to find freedom and reconvene with his family.

The historical context: The US had a history of slavery dating back 400 years, even before it was established as an independent country. By 1761, slavery had hit an all time high. The years leading up to the Civil War were some of the most tumultuous times in the history of the country. The US was split between the North (anti-slavery) and South (pro-slavery), of which these black and white views are clearly portrayed in 12 Years a Slave. Growing abolitionist sentiment hit its peak with the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and within a mere three months, 7 Southern states had succeeded from the US. This led to the outbreak of the Civil War that lasted from 1861 to 1863.

2. The Patriot

The film: Leading actors Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger star in the Patriot, a story set in colonial South Carolina in 1776 amidst the Revolutionary War. The main character, Benjamin Martin, a former war hero, has ignored the growing tensions between colonial US and Great Britain until it shows up on his doorstep of his plantation. After British soldiers burn his house down, he becomes motivated to join the rebellion against England and unfortunately loses his son in the process.

The historical context: While the US began as 13 British colonies, that was put to an end with the Revolutionary War with the birth of a new nation known as the United States of America. American colonists grew more and more tired of increasingly high tax payments from the British (known as redcoats) and their cruel punishments when those taxes couldn’t be paid. The Revolutionary War officially began in 1775 with small battles in Lexington and Concord of which these rebels launched a full-scale war for independence that lasted until 1783.

3. A League of Their Own

The film: Leading actors Tom Hanks and Geena Davis play in the movie A League of Their Own. Set in the Northwest US during WWII, a new group of women decided to take things into their own hands to keep major league baseball alive while the majority of men are at war. There’s just one problem though: women aren’t allowed to play Major League Baseball and they seek to change that.

The historical context: Women’s rights were still in process in the 1940s and 1950s USA. Amidst WWII, Major League Baseball had basically come to a halt. But a few courageous women decided to pick things up. At first there was a lot of pushback, because women were seen as too frail for such a sport. They were also forced to play in skirts instead of more suitable sports clothing. Most of the women on these teams came from farm homes and some were even illiterate. After the league reached huge successes, society realised that women were perfectly capable of playing professional sports. It was a huge step forward in letting women into traditionally male-dominated roles. 

4. Hidden Figures

The film: In the 1960s space race to the moon, Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson, a highly skilled African-American mathematician working at NASA. While working as a “human computer” she paved the way for all women to be recognised for their essential roles in putting Neil Armstrong on the moon, along with creating new opportunities for African-American women in STEM careers.

The historical context: Not only did women in general have a tough time getting their well-deserved positions in STEM, it was especially difficult for African-American women. From 1919 through the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement brought light to the struggle and inequality that faced many African-Americans despite the Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln implemented to end the Civil War. In addition to Katherine Johnson, other famous figures that worked to find racial equality in the US were Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nellie Hunt.

5. Good Morning Vietnam

The film: Starring the beloved comedian Robin Williams, he plays a DJ known as Adrian Cronauer who hosts a radio show during the Vietnam War in the 1970s. He soon after is shipped to Vietnam to bring up the morale of the US troops there. He ends up becoming wildly popular among the troops, but clashes with the middle management. He also experiences a new side of the Vietnam War in his daily life that isn’t being shown on the news. 

The historical context: The Vietnam War was one of the most unpopular wars among citizens in US history. Although the issues began a decade prior, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower pledged support to South Vietnam to stop their invading neighbors from North Vietnam. By 1960, over 9000 US troops were based in Vietnam backed by the idea that if Vietnam fell to communism, then so would all of Asia. By 1967, this number skyrocketed to 500,000 and protests erupted across the US. In an effort to silence the mass amounts of death and horrific situations, the government covered up the majority of news about Vietnam. It wasn’t until 1982 after the war ended that recognition was made public for the 60,000 US troops that had died and hundreds of thousands more were injured.

6. Dances with Wolves

The film: Played by Kevin Costner, the movie Dances with Wolves follows the story of Lt. John Dunbar as he and his troops seek command across the Western Frontier. He meets a Native American tribe and falls in love with a white woman there who was raised by them. He soon realises that massive obstacle that Native Americans face as they are forced from their homes and moved to reservations, or simply wiped out. In the end, he permanently leaves his military position.

The historical context: Although the goal of the pilgrims who came from Europe was to settle “The New World” (the US), that land was already occupied by Native Americans. As settlers began to move further West, greater tensions arose between the military and Native Americans in the fight for what belonged to whom. Native Americans didn’t have the superior military technology of the government, so were forced to relocate to reservations, abandon their cultures and traditions, or be entirely wiped out.

If you would like to learn more about American culture, or you’d like to improve your English language skills, visit the Lingoda website and sign up for your free 7-day trial today!

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