Americans have disagreed over a lot of issues in the nation’s history, including, currently, whether wearing a face mask during a pandemic is an assault on personal liberty. The below list of films concerns other substantial issues that have sharply divided the nation over the centuries.
“John Adams” (2008, TV-14) and “Liberty! The American Revolution” (1997, TV-PG): In the years leading up to America’s war for independence, divisions ran deep among colonists over the wisdom of leaving the British Empire and taking up arms against King George III. In both the engrossing docudrama “John Adams” and lively documentary series “Liberty! The American Revolution,” one can see that conflict played out in various ways until events (Britain’s crackdown on Massachusetts following the Boston Tea Party; bloodshed at the battles of Lexington and Concord) forced the 13 colonies to unite and form the Continental Army. Paul Giamatti (who once acted in Seattle) plays the title role in “John Adams,” which follows the deep impact of America’s eventual second president on an early nation’s contentious formation. “Liberty!” takes a viewer step-by-step through the evolving mindset of colonists as they feel their backs pushed against the wall. (“John Adams” on HBO Max; “Liberty! The American Revolution” on Kanopy, YouTube)
“Lincoln” (2012, PG-13) and “The American Experience: The Abolitionists” (2013, TV-PG): Steven Spielberg’s much-praised 2012 “Lincoln,” about Abraham Lincoln’s determination to see the U.S. Congress pass the 13th Amendment (outlawing slavery and involuntary servitude) to the Constitution, took some well-deserved hits for factual inaccuracies. But the film, which received Oscars for best actor (Daniel Day-Lewis) and production design, certainly captures the crisis-level unsustainability of a union containing states that banished slavery and states that refused to do so. “The Abolitionists” is a tremendous two-part production tracing the gradual alliance of Black and white abolitionists a full generation before the Emancipation Proclamation and through the ratification of the 13th Amendment. (“Lincoln” on Vudu, Amazon, YouTube, iTunes; “The Abolitionists” on Amazon, Kanopy)
“Militarizing the Police” (2002, not rated, for mature audiences): This often horrifying documentary could not be more timely given loud debate over law enforcement brutality and paramilitary tactics in response to protests across America following the killings of George Floyd and other unarmed Black Americans by police. “Militarizing the Police” is exactly what it sounds like: a short history of alliances between the Department of Justice and the military resulting in cops morphing into special forces in U.S. streets, while federal agents and military personnel are increasingly involved in domestic policing. A large part of the film concerns the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, which resulted (as seen in archival footage) in a police riot on Capitol Hill that also targeted innocent residents. (Amazon)
“Mrs. America” (2020, TV-MA): On Jan. 27 of this year, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, reaching the required number to make the ERA the 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a goal that took almost a half-century to achieve. Whether or not that actually happens is now, for various reasons, a matter for the courts. The series “Mrs. America” stars Cate Blanchett in an amazing performance as Phyllis Schlafly, an ultraconservative agitator and anti-feminist who sought and found political relevance by latching on to resistance to the ERA. Uzo Aduba won an Emmy for her portrayal of politician Shirley Chisholm. The show’s sidebar depictions of feminist activism involving Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) and Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), among others, amount to dumbed-down bullet points. But if you focus on Schlafly and Chisholm, this is a good experience. (Hulu, FX)
“Hoxie: The First Stand” (2003, not rated, mature audiences), “On the Line: Where Sacrifice Begins” (2016, not rated, mature audiences) and “Separate and Unequal” (2014, not rated, mature audiences): The landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education declared segregation in the nation’s schools unconstitutional, though it did not spell out a way to achieve desegregation. The most controversial remedy in years that followed was the busing of students to schools outside their segregated neighborhoods, setting off an often ugly new battle in America’s enduring problems with systemic racism. “Hoxie: The First Stand” is a shocking documentary about an insidious effort by die-hard segregationists to upend a heartfelt decision in a small Arkansas town to implement busing. “On the Line: Where Sacrifice Begins” concerns the fraught history of school busing in the Boston area, and “Separate and Unequal’ demonstrates how there is no end to creative ways Americans keep undermining schools, in this case by attempting to carve out new cities (with new school districts) from existing ones such as Baton Rouge. (All three on Kanopy)