The grill is fired up, stores are decked out in red-white-and-blue bunting, and parades might even be back en masse this year. We Americans love our flag and what it represents, even if the decades of history behind it might be a little fuzzy at times.
To fill that knowledge gap of our nation’s formative and key events, over the years Hollywood and documentarians have produced hundreds of programs.
Some, like Mel Gibson’s R-rated The Patriot, feature realistic violence in dramatizing the Revolutionary War. Others, like vulgar animated comedy America: The Motion Picture on Netflix, revel in revisionism.
Spanning 80 years of cinema and TV, here are 10 films and series that present American history with care while taking some creative license.
Most are kid-friendly, while a handful are likely best for teens and up.
Liberty’s Kids (40 half-hour episodes, TV-G)
From the studio that produced hundreds of Saturday-morning cartoons like Inspector Gadget, this award-winning series brings the founding era to the small screen.
Over 40 episodes (all online) starring notable voices like Liam Neeson, Ben Stiller and Annette Bening, Liberty’s Kids depicts key events from the Boston Tea Party to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
Animated Hero Classics (20 half-hour episodes, TV-G)
Following years at Disney animation, producer Richard Rich ventured out into his own studio in the 1990s, producing The Swan Princess, among other films.
A significant part of his work went direct-to-video, as Animated Hero Classics adapted stories of prominent American figures like Washington, Harriet Tubman, and William Bradford, with consultation from several historians.
John Adams (7 hour-long episodes, TV-14)
Since it premiered 14 years ago, some history lovers have made a habit of annually watching HBO’s lavishly produced $100 million John Adams miniseries (Editor raises hand).
Starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, this adaptation of the Adams biography by historian David McCullough makes the key battle cries — Independence! Loyalty to the Crown! — visceral and alive with personal stakes, quirky personalities, and period-accurate nuances rarely seen on screen.
Parents should note some violence and, late in the series, a brief scene of nudity in a medical context.
42: The Jackie Robinson Story (128 minutes, PG-13)
Recently deceased screen legend Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther, Marshall) embodies the bravery and perseverance of baseball star Jackie Robinson, the first black Major League Baseball player.
This meticulously researched film, co-starring Harrison Ford as Brooklyn Dodgers coach Branch Rickey, vividly captures a time when racial slurs were used to dehumanize, and also reflects on racial justice with relevance for today.
Schoolhouse Rock (11 four-minutes episodes, TV-G)
On Disney’s streaming service, skip to season three for the iconic I’m Just a Bill song, along with ten other memorable tunes.
These easy-to-hum melodies pack in badly-needed lessons about civics, history, and how our government works.
Hidden Figures (128 minutes, PG-13)
During the 1960s Space Race, three African-American women working at NASA — Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), and her friends (Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe) —served as the mathematical brains behind the first launch of man into orbit around the Earth.
Along the way, the inspiring trio overcomes racial discrimination and gender stereotypes to achieve heroic work.
Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale (102 minutes, PG)
Loosely based on historical accounts, Native American leader Squanto is torn from his tribe when Englishmen traffic him to London. His fighting prowess becomes a show for sport.
When he finally returns to America, he finds his scattered people must chart a new path forward.
Hamilton (160 minutes, PG-13)
Driven by hip-hop along with traditional show tunes, Hamilton is a cultural phenomenon–and for good reason.
True, Washington and the founders were not men of color, one of many creative choices made here.
But when you delve into how it depicts historic events, it’s a celebration of America’s Revolution that aims to entertain and inform (note: some offensive language and mature themes).
Available for On-Demand Rental
1776 (168 minutes, G)
If ever the outworking of democracy seems boring — learned people in stuffy rooms debating the finer points of policy — put on this beloved musical.
Centered around the Continental Congress, colonial-era factions and themes come to life, brimming with humor and passion.
From light conflicts among Founding Fathers Adams, Jefferson and Franklin, to weighty matters of national complicity in slavery, 1776 brilliantly reveals how miraculous the American experiment really is.
(Editor's note: It's also great fun, relatively accurate, remarkably relevant -- sad how little politics changes -- and suitable for watching every Independence Day, which I do.)
Yankee Doodle Dandy (126 minutes, G)
In this 1942 musical, Hollywood icon James Cagney sings and dances his way through the life of Broadway showman George M. Cohan.
As if Cohan’s own rags-to-riches story isn’t enough to celebrate the American spirit, the songwriter’s wartime marching-band numbers such as “Over There” and “You’re A Grand Old Flag” reflect the patriotism of a bygone era.
Image: Adobe Stock
Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith and public-policy issues for various media outlets. He and his wife are raising two children in Northern Virginia.