Sometimes, the best (and most exciting) way to learn about history isn't in a classroom—it's through watching a beautifully shot, creatively reimagined depiction of historical events. From musicals that shed new light on old stories (here's looking at you, Hamilton) to moving films that give unsung heroes the credit they deserve, the best historical films are both faithful retellings of major moments in history and a new way to look at the famous figures and events we thought we knew. For next time you're in the mood for both a dose of history and a new favorite film, allow us to present: The best historical movies ever.
If you haven't seen Jennifer Hudson's Oscar-winning turn as Effie White, watch Dreamgirls immediately! The film is set in the Motown era and is inspired by the story of The Supremes. Plus, you get to watch Anika Noni Rose and Beyoncé alongside Hudson.
If Hamilton's life story showed us anything, it’s that the most important and prolific people are often forgotten by history. Much like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson getting the lion’s share of attention, the astronauts at NASA may have gotten the glory of going into space, but they wouldn’t have made it there without the brilliant work of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson, as shown in Hidden Figures.
Sure, Tracy Turnblad is a fictional dancing queen, but no matter if you watch the non-musical John Waters film starring a young Ricki Lake or the musical version, they both tackle a lot of hot topics of the '60s that are still relevant today from fighting against racial injustice to body positivity. Both versions are available on Amazon Prime.
'On the Basis of Sex'
Want more stories about strong women fighting for equality in a man's world? This Felicity Blunt-led film spotlights the Notorious Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her fight for women's rights.
Everyone learned in school that Amelia Earhart was a female pilot and disappeared mysteriously, but that's not where her story ended. In this movie directed by Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair, you'll get more insight on Earhart's struggles to become a female pilot in a male-dominated world.
If you want more singing about the American Revolution, look to this classic musical. It stars William Daniels (a.k.a. Mr. Feeny from Boy Meets World) as John Adams and Blythe Danner, who steals the show as Martha Jefferson.
'Betty and Coretta'
If you loved the passionate way Eliza fought to keep Alexander Hamilton's memory alive, you'll enjoy this film about Dr. Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott King. This film was made for Lifetime, but Mary J. Blige and Angela Bassett bring to life the lesser-told stories of the widows of Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr. after their husbands were assassinated.
If you're interested in the history of women's rights, you need to watch Suffragette, which centers on the plight of female foot soldiers advocating for their right to vote during the turn of the century in the U.K.
'Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap'
If you love a good musical-slash-history film, check out this documentary directed by Ice-T as he interviews legendary rappers about their experiences.
A lot of war movies can be a little on the dull side, but The Patriot has some redeeming qualities. This Revolutionary War tale stars Mel Gibson who's out for revenge on the British solider who killed his son. It also features a very dapper Heath Ledger.
'Hedwig and the Angry Inch'
Hedwig and the Angry Inch isn't actually based on a real person, but this rock musical captures the 1970s glam rock era perfectly, and is a great option for people who don't typically like "musicals." It also stars John Cameron Mitchell (who wrote and created the show) as a transgender punk performer who had her songs stolen by a former lover.
There is a lot more to Frida Kahlo's story than just her famous self-portraits and unibrow. Learn about her challenging life, her tumultuous relationship with her husband, and her creative masterpieces in this film.
'We Are Freestyle Love Supreme'
This original Hulu documentary film chronicles the reunion of Freestyle Love Supreme, an improv hip-hop show. If you need more Hamilton in your life, this is probably the closest thing, though you might also want to consider watching Moana (yes, the animated Disney movie, available on Disney+) to hear more tracks written and performed by Miranda.
If you're up for another film about American history, this drama follows the story of interracial couple Mildred (Ruth Negga) and Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton). After they're arrested for being married in 1960s Virginia, the couple enters a legal battle that ends with the landmark Supreme Court case that made interracial marriage legal in all 50 states.
'West Side Story'
Before you watch the new version of West Side Story, check out the original film adaptation of this Romeo and Juliet-inspired tale, starring Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno, before the remake comes out this Christmas.
If you haven't already watched it in history class, this Civil War film is definitely worth a watch. Based on the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, Glory follows Col. Robert Gould Shaw as he leads an all-Black volunteer regiment, showing how Black soldiers faced prejudice from both the Union and Confederate armies.
One of the most notable Black women in U.S. history, Harriet Tubman, got the silver-screen treatment in this biopic, starring Oscar-nominee Cynthia Erivo as the abolitionist, Underground Railroad "conductor," and Union Army solider and spy.
'In the Heights'
This film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's first musical, starring Hamilton cast member Anthony Ramos, is a fun love letter to his NYC neighborhood of Washington Heights, featuring an infectious rap and Latin-infused score. Bonus: If you love the soundtrack, there are even more great songs on the original Broadway album.
Angel Madison is a writer, editor, and crafter living in New Jersey with her teenage daughter and two cats.
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