Take A Cinematic Journey Through The American Experience With These Films

The Fourth of July is a time to celebrate America’s independence, but it also gives us all the chance to remember the history and legacy of our great country. While not every single moment in our past has been glorious, as Americans, it’s important to understand and remember all the pieces of our nation’s puzzle to better understand where we’re headed.

Cinema can be considered a time-capsule of sorts, capturing moments and dissecting the nuances of a time past. So, go ahead and catch up on some American history — the regrettable, the sad, and the amazing — with a slew of streamable films (available to watch on HBO Now) that can help add some color to the remembrance of our nation.

12 Years a Slave

It’s hard to watch slavery on film because it was such a disgusting moment in our national tapestry, but it’s a part of our history, and there’s no denying it. Some films capture this regrettable time well (others, like Django Unchained, use it as background to another narrative), and 12 Years a Slave is one of those films. With a remarkable performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor, this movie will both haunt and inspire you.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Just as slavery was a sore sport in our nation’s history, so is our treatment of Native Americans as we expanded our reach across the country. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee depicts that struggle for land after the Battle of the Little Bighorn and leads up to the bloody battle at Wounded Knee. While a wonderful film, it’s also an enraging look into the last vestiges of America’s Manifest Destiny.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Not exactly a historical drama, but a whimsical take on Homer’s “The Odyssey” that works its way through the southland in the economically depressed 1930s. The film is raised up by the Coen Brothers quirky and brilliant script and direction, as well as a breakthrough performance by George Clooney and Coen regulars like John Turturro, Charles Durning, Holly Hunter, and John Goodman.

Good Night, and Good Luck

The Red Scare during the ’50s in America was a frightening time when many in political and judicial positions created a list of individuals, in the entertainment arena and other fields, that were considered “communists.” The truth was that it was a fear campaign ran by Senator Joseph McCarthy that amounted to a witch hunt. This film captures that moment in time with journalist Edward R. Murrow taking a stand against the Senator. Good Night, and Good Luck was nominated for six Oscars.

Get on Up

Like 8 Mile, Get on Up captures lightning in a bottle and also captures a revolutionary time in music. James Brown was a legendary performer, and this biopic serves the man with the slick feet justice. Watch as the “hardest-working man in show business” lights up the stage and becomes a star.

Summer of Sam

The ’70s were a time of change in America, and, as the ’80s approached, it was clear that our social structure would evolve permanently. Towards the end of the decade, the South Bronx was experiencing that change, but they were also experiencing something else… a serial killer. The Son of Sam was on the loose, shooting New York residents dead and sending cryptic messages to the police. Check out this Spike Lee joint and relive this terrifying time.

Lean on Me

The true story of Joe Clark — a man hired to be the principal of an inner-city school on the brink of chaos — is a late ’80s classic. While documenting the youth culture of the late ’80s/early ’90s, Lean on Me also serves a perfect vehicle for Morgan Freeman, whose booming voice and authoritative demeanor starts to focus the kids in a more productive direction.

The Normal Heart

The Normal Heart is a film about the American AIDS struggle when it was still in its embryonic stage. With political, medical, and social roadblocks heading their progress, gays across the nation put up a united front to raise awareness. This film is heartbreaking, infuriating, and educational (also incredibly well-acted), so make sure you put this at the top of your Fourth of July watch list.


It may seem like we’re always at war, but even during the height of a power struggle, doldrums can manifest. This film captures that inertia perfectly and serves as an allegory for the dichotomy of international conflicts. Jake Gyllenhaal is fantastic in his role as a soldier who has become bored in the fields of battle, and the film itself serves as magnifying glass into the machinations of war.

8 Mile

Eminem stars in this ode to overcoming adversity and hip-hop music. This Rocky meets Krush Groove released when Eminem — one of the biggest music acts of all-time — was at the height of his powers. Nothing is more American than beating the odds, and hip-hop — once considered to be a fad — is now a part of our musical history.

Game Change

Just how ridiculous can American politics be? Well, watch Game Change, and you’ll see how inept the political atmosphere gets when an inexperienced and unprepared Sarah Palin joins John McCain as his running mate in the 2008 presidential election. Great performances from Woody Harrelson, Julianne Moore, and Ed Harris characterize this tragically and unintentionally hilarious look at the U.S. political landscape.


Space travel has always been a part of the American Dream, and even in contemporary times, President Obama has vowed to continue the space program. What better way to experience the outer realms of the atmosphere then to watch Sandra Bullock and George Clooney floating around in the abyss? Featuring some of the best CGI this side of The Avengers, Gravity is a relentless and frightening ride through the cosmos.

Honorable Mention

Lone Survivor, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Bessie