Fun & Easy Ways to Learn History: Watch Great Movies!

Note: This blog post is also available as a podcast of this series. The podcast can be found on this website and the Wiki History Podcast Page.

Hello History friends and welcome back to rememberinghistory.com where we are remembering history and we’re making history.

I’m glad that you’ve returned for this great and groundbreaking series called “6 Fun and Easy Ways to learn history”!

What did we learn in Part I of this series?

In Part I, we discovered that you can be inspired by books about history. I’m not only talking about the 800- or 1,000-page history textbooks from high school and college though some people could be inspired by them. I was discussing history books as literature. I mentioned the “non-fiction novel” that was first used by Truman Capote when he wrote In Cold Blood. Then I also mentioned the Pulitzer prize-winning book, The Devil in the Grove, written by Gilbert King that brought the setting and players of the early civil rights movement to life. Those were both great and groundbreaking books too.

In part I of the series, I also presented and read excerpts from slave narratives and from Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, both of which presented history directly from the people involved.

In short, we discovered that books about history can be amazingly inspirational when they are works of real literature that tell stories rather than feed us names, dates and death counts. As David McCullough said, “No harm is done to history by making it something that someone would want to read.” I have these books and many inspirational books about history in the bookstore at rememberinghistory.com. So, I hope that you’ll look there and find something that you “would want to read” about history. Remember that I have personally read and vetted these sources so you can trust them. Or you can hold me accountable if you don’t like them.

In Part II, we will examine another way to learn and be inspired by history.

Watch Great Movies!

I understand that there are lots of people who just prefer not to read. Or they have to read all day long so they don’t want to spend their evenings and weekends reading too. I understand and I don’t make any judgments.

There are fantastic movies that bring history to life and are amazingly inspirational too. Just like books, movies walk the line between fiction and nonfiction.

Here are a few examples:

  • Sounder (the oldest son of a Black family of sharecroppers comes of age in the Depression-era South after his father is imprisoned for stealing food)
  • Amistad (about the transatlantic slave trade and a group of captured Africans who demand to be returned home).
  • Twelve Years a Slave (about the experience of Solomon Northrup who was a free black man, captured and sold into slavery for 12 years),
  • X (the life of Malcolm X based on the autobiography by Alex Haley)
  • Glory (about a black army troop during the Civil War),
  • Schlinder’s List (about the Jewish holocaust and the rescue of Jews during WWII),
  • Saving Private Ryan (follows a marine troop after the invasion of Normandy who are looking to bring a marine private back to the United States),
  • Lincoln (about the passage of the 13th Amendment),
  • Selma (about an iconic march for voting rights during the civil rights movement)
  • The Butler (about a young Black boy from a sharecropper family who leaves the South and works as a butler in the White House for 34 years)
  • Django Unchained (a freed enslaved man sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi slave owner)  

This is just a few great movies about history!

Many other movies immersed audiences in great historical events or into the lives and experiences of people who lived in the past. (By the way, I just want to mention that most of these movies are based on books, nonfiction novels—they are great reads!)

These movies could be called the “big screen” equivalents of Capote’s nonfiction novel. Still, these types of movies are firmly based in fact but they are presented as stories. In movies, this means that there is some creative license to “fill in details” or make slight changes to the truth, the true story, in order to make the story flow well and connect on the screen.

Other movies are works of fiction but are so well researched and presented that they also cross the line into inspirational works of history. Remember The Color Purple by Alice Walker showed life in the 1920s American south for Celie who endured racism, sexism and sexual abuse before she discovered her own power and self-worth.

Beloved by Toni Morrison showed the horrors of slavery and its aftermath—emotional, physical and psychological effects—of the Antebellum period. Other movies brought painful stories to life but also inspired us to overcome our own challenges and hardships. Personally, I will never forget the film, Men of Honor, with Cuba Gooding, Jr. who worked to become the first African American (and amputee) master diver for the U.S. Navy.  There are many other historically-based movies that educate and inspire but I’m sure that you understand my point.

On a slightly different note, leaving the nonfiction novel-type of movie, I want to mention documentaries. Please try not to sigh or roll your eyes! Documentaries usually delve deeply into a particular person’s life or an historical event or a situation. They are similar to history textbooks except (obviously) they are visual and they tend to give a more full, more realistic and more lively picture. They will not use creative license (as much) to fill in facts. They present the facts so it is a different genre than a movie like Saving Private Ryan, for example. But documentaries are usually wonderfully well written, well researched and well presented. They are worth your time and attention because they are educational and inspirational.

Let me give some examples about documentaries made about former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. (Yes, he is one of my heroes!) There was the documentary called With All Deliberate Speed (2004), which actually contains interviews with some of the people involved in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. Vernon Jordan, Julian Bond are interviewed. And Thurgood Marshall’s son gives an inspiring and emotional interview about the case and his father.

Another documentary called And Justice for All (2005) discusses the Brown case and gives the background about segregation and the fight to desegregate the public school system. There are no boring facts and numbers flashing on the screen. Instead there is real footage, interviews, discussions and explanations about the civil rights movement. People are telling their stories. We will also hear Thurgood Marshall’s story. This is historical literature on the small screen! Inspiration can be felt throughout the film.

Movies based on history can be incredibly, amazingly inspirational. Documentaries can be equally inspirational. Don’t be put off by documentaries—they are more than visual textbooks; they are collections of living history. Both movies and documentaries are also educational and entertaining. Remember as David McCullough said that “No harm is done to history by making it something that someone would want to read”, I will take it a step further to say that no harm is done to history by making something that someone would want to watch!

So, Part II of this 6-part series on “Fun and Easy Ways to learn history” is to Watch movies and documentaries. Watch. Learn. Be inspired.

That is all for Part II of Fun and Easy Ways to learn history! I hope that you have enjoyed this part of the series and have found a useful way to connect with history. No, the series isn’t finished yet. We still have part three and, no, I won’t give any sneak peeks into the third way to be inspired by history. You will have to read this blog or listen to the podcast.

Continue with Part II at rememberinghistory.com where we are remembering history and we’re making history.

Bye for now.

Do you want more ideas of great historical movies and documents? Click here!