Movies based on actual history tend to be a mixed bag. Transforming complicated events and people into entertaining films is never easy -- much less when anyone with a WiFi connection can fact-check your screenplay. Under that pressure, many movies stumble. Some get bloated, others get preachy, still more are just boring. But not these six films. Whether focusing on the inner life of a grieving First Lady or exploring the modern white supremacist movement, each of these 2016 movies spun a true chapter from history into an engaging feature film. You don't have to be a history nerd to appreciate them -- but if you are, you'll just like them even more.
Barry & Southside With You
Barack Obama hasn't left office yet, but he's already earned two biopics in the past year alone. The first was Southside with You, a Sundance Film Festival entry about Barack and Michelle Obama's first date. Southside with You skews more rom-com than presidential biography. It functions almost like Before Sunrise, except the president and First Lady are the ones having the sprawling conversations over one day. You'll catch some biographical details from these discussions, and there's even a patented inspirational Obama speech at a (fictional) community meeting. But the very human fears and frustrations both Barack and Michelle face over the evening are what makes the movie so interesting. Michelle may be an impossibly poised public figure now, but she still worried about what her boss would think of her dating a summer associate. And Barack may be a barrier-breaking president now, but he still had to tactfully navigate a conversation about Do the Right Thing with his clueless white boss.
Barry just hit Netflix on Friday, and journeys further back in time to Barack Obama's first year at Columbia University. There's still a youthful romance, but this movie concerns an Obama who's far less sure of himself. He feels like an outsider just about everywhere he goes, and has little hope or faith in politics. But as he struggles with aimlessness and plenty of casual racism, the kid who would one day become president starts to take shape.
There's a scene in Jackie that could serve as its thesis statement. The president has just been shot, and now his widow is riding with his corpse to the hospital. She asks the driver if he knows who James Garfield was. He doesn't. She asks the nurse if she knows who William McKinley was. She doesn't. Then she asks the driver if he knows who Abraham Lincoln was or what he did. "He won the Civil War and abolished slavery," the driver replies. That's when Jackie Kennedy turns to her brother-in-law and tells him to get her every book on Lincoln and his funeral.
For a biopic, Jackie covers very little of its subject's life, focusing almost exclusively on the seven days following the JFK assassination. But the movie uses those glimpses into the First Lady's life to say some important things about how history gets remembered -- and manipulated, depending on who's writing it. Because in the end, Jackie doesn't care how Jacqueline Bouvier met her future husband, or what she really thought of Lyndon B. Johnson. It cares about the increasingly blurred line between facts and fairy tales.
It sounds like a lazy movie pitch: an interracial couple named Richard and Mildred Loving fight for their right to love each other, eventually defeating anti-miscegenation laws in the Supreme Court. But that's really how the historic Loving v. Virginia case happened, and director Jeff Nichols turns it into a graceful, moving film. The power of Loving comes in its pauses. You won't hear any grandiose speeches about the fundamental right to marry whomever you want, because there are none. Instead, Nichols fills the movie with meaningful glances and simple declarations, trusting his viewers to be smart enough to fill in the blanks.
Before her death became a national tragedy, Christine Chubbock led a pretty sad life. She had very few friends, counting her mother (whom she lived with) as her closest confidant. She had even fewer boyfriends -- and was told by a doctor that she was losing her window to have a child. She did not feel valued for her work, convinced that her local news station cared more about the "local blood and guts" than her smaller community stories.
She was also suffering from suicidal depression and on July 15, 1974, she took her life live on the air. Christine isn't the searing condemnation of the media that Network, which opened just two years later, remains today. It's a biopic of a woman slowly coming undone -- but no one noticed until it was too late.
Of all the films on this list, Imperium has the loosest connection to history. The main character, Nate Foster, is not a real person. Neither is anyone in the movie. But Imperium was inspired by the work of Michael German, a former FBI agent who spent time undercover with white supremacists. His proxy Nate delves into these terrifying groups first as a skinhead, but he soon learns there are all sorts of people who ascribe to these hateful views -- even affable suburban dads who love classical music and hate cursing. Although it can sometimes feel like a fictional thriller, Imperium makes sure to bring its reality home with references to domestic terrorists like Dylann Roof, who subscribed to the same Internet forums and fringe media these onscreen neo-Nazis worship.
Feature Image via YouTube