Although no movie is entirely historically accurate due to creative liberties, some come awfully close. Directors and actors do their research, whether it’s on the slave trade, NASA protocol, or how immigrants were treated back in 1863, New York, making films as historically accurate as possible is no small matter.
And while documentaries might be a good way to understand history, there’s nothing quite like the dramatization of movies such as Gangs of New York or the critically acclaimed film Hidden Figures. Whether the film depicts historical figures, specific periods, or significant events, history buffs are going to want to make a note to watch these films.
12 Years A Slave
The critically acclaimed film 12 Years a Slave is based on the memoir of the same name by Solomon Northup. Living in upstate New York as a free African-American years before the start of the Civil War, Northup is kidnapped and brought down south to Louisana. There, he works on a plantation as a slave for 12 years.
This film dives into the harsh reality that was southern slavery during the war. Director Steve McQueen didn’t sugarcoat the history that goes along with the subject matter; instead, he illustrates the brutality of the time. Of course, a scholar on the topic, Henry Louis Gates Jr., was brought in as a consultant.
A Night To Remember
A Night To Remember is considered to be one of the most historically accurate portrayals of the Titanic sinking. Well, except for the lack of the ship breaking in half after hitting the iceberg. The film is highly regarded by both historians and survivors of the disaster for its accuracy, despite the production value that comes with 1950s films.
In an interview with The Guardian, Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller’s wife, Sylvia, said, “the film is really the truth and has not been embroidered.” You can’t go against the word of someone who had a husband on board.
The 1993 film Schindler’s List follows the story of businessman Oskar Schindler as he goes on to save more than a thousand Jewish people in Krakow, Poland, during World War II. Director Steven Spielberg wasn’t sure he was ready to direct a drama about this time and tried to pass the screenplay off the various other directors.
Eventually, he made the film, and it’s considered to be one of the best films ever made. According to Time, the film accurately captures the brutality of the German political party during the war, and the harsh way they affected the lifestyles of others.
The King’s Speech
The King’s Speech is a historical drama that follows King George IV as he tries to learn how to effectively communicate with his subjects since he has a stammer. The monarch hires Lionel Logue, an Australian speech therapist, to help him cope with his “issue.” They work together up until the time of the king’s first wartime radio broadcast.
It’s said that the film is a fairly accurate retelling of the unique relationship between the monarch and his therapist. And while some creative liberties took place throughout the movie, it is praised for its attention to historical detail.
Mary Queen Of Scots
Mary Queen Of Scots is a period piece that follows the rule of, you guessed it, Mary. Aside from her rule over Scotland, the movie explores the relationship the monarch has with her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, as their two countries are in conflict during 1569.
Although the film generally garnered positive reviews, especially for the acting abilities of Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan, it was criticized for some historical inaccuracies. The biggest complaint was that too many creative liberties were taken, even though the events were real. One such liberty was the way the cousins’ communicated. They never saw each other face-to-face; instead, they spoke via snail mail.
Gone With The Wind
Gone With The Wind is an epic romance film that follows the story of Scarlett O’Hara, a southern bell living in Georgia during the American Civil War. While the war and the Reconstruction Era go on in the background, viewers watch as O’Hara peruses her romantic interest of Ashley Wilkes, even though they’re both married. Scandalous!
The film is said to accurately portray a number of topics. Life in the south during the Civil War, the role of women during the time, as well as the representation of race relations in the south during the war, to name a few.
Apollo 13 follows the story of astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise as they depart on America’s third mission to the moon. As history goes, the mission was unsuccessful due to an onboard explosion causing the oxygen supply to drastically lower.
Director Ron Howard wanted to make sure the depiction of the space trip was accurately represented, especially the aircraft and control boards. To do so, he went straight to NASA for help in training cast members of proper astronaut and control station mechanics. He was even able to get permission to film on a reduced gravity aircraft!
Richard Attenborough’s 1982 historical drama Gandhi follows the life of the non-violent leader, starting with the infamous day he’s kicked off a South African train because he was sitting in a whites-only section. The film then proceeds to depict Gandhi’s entire life, ending with his assassination and funeral in 1948.
As far as historical events go, Attenborough does a good job illustrating the important moments, obviously taking some creative liberties to make situations more dramatic. Overall, if you’re interested in a film about the life of the non-violent leader who was against the United Kingdom’s rule of India in the 20th century, Gandhi is a must-see.
Gangs Of New York
Set in 1863, New York, Gangs of New York follows the life of Irish immigrant Amsterdam as he seeks vengeance on the anti-immigrant gang members who killed his father. And the only way to get close to the head of the gang is to head to the neighborhood of Five Points and infiltrate its inner circle.
The movie has been praised for its historically accurate representation of the mistreatment of immigrants during the time, especially the low wages and feuding that occurred. It’s also been said that the depiction of the old New York neighborhood Five Points couldn’t have been better represented.
All The President’s Men
All The President’s Men is a historical drama about the Watergate scandal that ended Richard Nixon’s presidency, beginning with security guard Frank Willis finding a door bolt taped over at the complex. His discovery leads to the arrest of five potential burglars in the Democratic National Committee Section of the complex. From there, the drama behind the scandal unfolds.
This film is praised for its accurate portrayal of the event. It’s said that this film illustrates the Watergate scandal better than any other movie because each event is depicted and not rushed through, whereas other movies have been known to skip over certain moments and conversations.
The Darkest Hour
Gary Oldman stars as Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the critically acclaimed film The Darkest Hour. The movie follows Churchill during his early days as the Prime Minister and how he responds to World War II and the War Cabinet Crisis in May of 1940.
Historian John Broich said that director Joe Wright took on a huge historical task with The Darkest Hour. He had to present the British decision on fighting in the war as a choice rather than something that was inevitable. He did the history of Churchill’s early days as Prime Minister justice while taking some creative liberties, of course.
Set in 1971, The Post follows journalists of the Washington Post as they try to publish the Pentagon Papers. The documents expose the decades-long involvement of the US government during the Vietnam War, secrets the public shouldn’t know. Film critics have said they’re impressed with the accurate representation of events, especially the involvement of the publishing industry.
TheWrap‘s Alonso Duralde, says, “The Post passes the trickiest tests of a historical drama: it makes us understand that decisions validated by the lens of history were difficult ones to make in the moment, and it generates suspense over how all the pieces fell into place to make those decisions come to fruition.”
First Man is a biographical film that depicts the adventures of Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong as he becomes the first man to step foot on the moon. Starting off as an engineer, the movie follows the life of Armstrong during his space training and, finally, his departure with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins as they head to the moon.
The film was wildly praised for its technical components, even winning an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. And, although the events were historically accurate, there was a not-so-tiny element left out; Armstrong planting the flag on the moon.
Set in 1962, Thirteen Days tells the story of the high tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. A tension most thought was going to end in a nuclear explosion that was going to end the world. The film illustrates the 13 days of chaos, disorder, and overall suspense that was a direct result of the Cuban Missle Crisis.
Although viewers don’t see the point of view of the Soviet Union or Cuba, they are witnessing a fairly accurate portrayal of what occurred inside Washington with the politicians. To say this movie has you on edge the entire time would be an understatement.
The film Malcolm X dramatizes some of the key events in activist Malcolm X’s life. Some of the events include his criminal past, incarceration, his conversion to Islam, and his reevaluation on race concerns, among other things. All of which lead up to his 1965 assassination.
While the film is historically accurate, it does take some creative liberties in the name of entertainment. Even so, that didn’t stop the Library of Congress from preserving it in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Based on the untold true story of the ladies of NAS, Hidden Figures follows three mathematicians as they help Americans get back into the Space Race by getting John Glenn into orbit, the first person America sent to space. The successful mission energized the nation, restoring much-needed confidence. Hidden Figures was wildly praised for its accuracy upon its 2016 release.
During an interview with Daily Press, Katherine Johnson, one of the women depicted in the film, said, “It sounded good…It sounded very, very accurate.” It doesn’t hurt that the cast had a lot of primary and secondary materials to work with!
No one does historical accuracy quite like director David Fincher, and Zodiac is a stellar representation of his talents. The film follows the intense investigation of the San Fransisco serial killer known as the Zodiac Killer through the 1960s and 1970s. And like the reporters in the film, Fincher didn’t leave any details unturned.
During the months leading up to filming, Fincher took it upon himself to personally interview victim’s family members, witnesses, suspects, and detectives who were on the case. He wound up curating a personal case file in an obsessive manner close to that of Jake Gyllenhaal’s character. It paid off, as the film was praised for its historical accuracy.
A Beautiful Mind
The film A Beautiful Mind portrays the life of graduate student John Nash, a gifted mathematician who slowly develops paranoid schizophrenia. Due to his condition, Nash watches as his relationships with friends and his wife Alicia shift. And not for the better.
While the film has been praised for the acting of Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly, critics noted it took some liberties when it came to the depiction of Nash’s personal life, especially that of his family. Even so, the events and advanced medial conditions portrayed by Crowe were wildly praised for its accurate representation.
In terms of historical accuracy, there’s nothing quite like Lincoln. The film follows Lincoln during the last four months of his life, focusing on him trying to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865 in the hopes of abolishing slavery from the United States.
Historians weren’t overly thrilled with the over-exaggerated writing, but they did praise Daniel Day-Lewis for his representation of Lincoln. Allen Guelzo, said, “I had never thought that Daniel Day-Lewis was acting because what he portrayed seemed so close to my own mental image of what Lincoln must have been like.” He was also impressed by the accurate portrayal of Lincoln’s awkwardness!
Harriet is based on the true story of the runaway slave Harriet Tubman. The film follows Tubman as she escapes her slave owners down south, making her way to the north and finding the Underground Railroad. From there, she liberates slaves from captivity, moving them through the intricate railroad system of safe houses.
The film was wildly praised for taking on such a monumental historical figure. It doesn’t hurt that Harriet also portrayed the daring liberations in their true fashion, as thriller-like missions that have people on the edge of their seats.
Pfc. Desmond T. Doss has his heroic story told in the film Hacksaw Ridge. Due to religious reasons, Doss refuses to bear arms during World War II, resulting in criticism and scrutiny from his fellow soldiers. Nevertheless, he is allowed into battle. Much to his comrades’ surprise, Doss saves 75 men during the Battle of Okinawa.
For years, Doss declined to have his story told. Desmond Jr., Doss’ only child, said, “The reason he declined is that none of them adhered to his one requirement: that it be accurate. And I find it remarkable, the level of accuracy in adhering to the principal of the story in this movie.”
Natalie Portman took on the challenge of portraying the former First Lady Jackie Kennedy in the historical drama, Jackie. The film is set in 1963 and follows Jackie as she deals with the aftermath of her husband’s assassination. That means, getting kicked out of her home at the White House, comforting her kids, dealing with various interviews, all while preparing a funeral.
Historical accuracy was essential to director Pablo Larrain and Portman. To prepare for the role, the main actresses read a lot of literature of the former First Lady, mainly the Life magazine interview from 1964. The crew even had videos of interviews playing during filming!
The Young Karl Marx
The Young Karl Marx is a historical drama piece that follows the life of a young Marx as he meets someone who has similar beliefs. When Marx meets Friedrich Engels, a man who comes from a wealthy family, the two begin to formulate their political agenda, mainly, how to unite and reform impoverished workers. The film ends with Karl Marx writing and publishing The Communist Manifesto.
In a review for Inside Higher Ed. Scott McLemee described the film’s historical portrayal of Marx as “a nuanced and surprisingly accurate portrait of the revolutionary as a young man.”
Bonnie And Clyde
The epic film Bonnie and Clyde follows the tale of the infamous criminals Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow as they wreak havoc throughout the central United States during the Great Depression. The two would steal from stores, rob people, and “take care” of anyone who thought it was smart to get in their way. Unfortunately for the two love birds, their end comes during a police shootout.
Critics consider this film to be the mark of “New Hollywood,” as it broke through the barriers of violence and intimacy that were on a strict censorship leash. The film is praised for its accurate depiction of Barrow and Parker’s unusual relationship.
The 1997 film Amistad is based on the true story of an 1839 slave revolt aboard La Amistad. The film follows the aftermath of the uprising when the ship finally reaches US soil, and the people responsible for the revolt have to stand trial. They’re all charged with piracy and have to figure out a way to argue for their freedom.
Even though the film takes many creative liberties, it is very much grounded in the historical events that took place after the uprising.
The 2002 biopic Frida follows the controversial personal and professional life of Mexican surrealist artist Frida Kahlo. Starring Salma Hayek as Kahlo, the film is a beautiful display of traumatic events turning into art. Something that is symbolized by Kahlo’s own tragedy at the beginning of the film, followed by her healing through painting.
The film was highly praised by critics, especially the passion Hayek puts behind Kahlo’s colorful character. Jonathan Foreman from the New York Post said, “[Frida] captures both the glamorous, deeply cosmopolitan milieu Kahlo and Rivera inhabited, and the importance Mexico had in the ’30s for the international left.”
The Great Debaters
Denzel Washington stars as Melvin B. Tolson, a debate coach who starts a team at Wiley College, a black school in the heart of Texas. Throughout the film, Tolson’s goal is to bring together a group of intelligent individuals to compete against other schools, all of which are primarily white.
The Great Debaters follows the team to Harvard, where they become to first African-American group to compete against the prestigious ivy league students. The film does a great job exploring the team’s dynamic, while touching on racial issues during the Great Depression, such as Jim Crow Laws.
Suffragette follows the story of Maud Watts as she gets caught up with a group of activist women protesting for equal rights to vote in 20th century Britain. With the police always close by, Watts and her fellow suffragettes risk their families, homes, jobs, and freedom, for the opportunity to have their voices heard.
The film is ground in the historical movement and even has a few important people mixed in with fictional characters, such as Emmeline Pankhurst, portrayed by none other than Meryl Streep.
Don Cheadle plays Paul Rusesabagina, a manager at the Hôtel des Mille Collines who does what he can to house refugees during the Rwandan genocide. The film follows Rusesabagina as he protects his family and thousands of others from the Hutu military forces that were on a “cleansing” campaign in the region.
The film is very emotional but thrilling enough to have viewers on the edge of their seats the entire time. Stephan Holden from the New York Times said, “[The film is] a political thriller based on fact that hammers every button on the emotional console.”
Milk follows the life of Harvey Milk, a gay rights activist and first openly LGBTQ+ person to be elected for office. Set in San Francisco during the 1970s, Milk is elected to the Board of Supervisors in the city. The film illustrates the time Milk had in office, specifically his efforts to defeat Proposition 6, which was trying to ban LGBTQ+ persons from working in California public schools.
The historical film was well received. Sean Penn even won an Academy Award for Best Actor. But what critics were raving most about is the fluidity Penn brings to the performance, almost as if he became Milk and nothing was scripted.