Five Movies You Must Watch to Understand America

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America is a vast nation with a rich and relatively short history. But who wants to pore through thick history volumes with yellow pages? We all know a bit about the Declaration of Independence, the Revolution and those men referred to as the Founding Fathers.

We’ll start a little bit further on. Here are five films that make art of brutality, violence and injustice. Five films that discuss what America was, what it is now, and what it believes itself to be.

1. 12 Years a Slave

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You’re out for a stroll when two friendly strangers approach and ask if you’re the violinist they’ve heard about. In fact you are. And a conversation over dinner about playing on tour with a theater group turns into an abduction. Solomon Northup, a black man free in the North but stripped of papers, is sold in the South as a slave named Platt.

Based in a true story, 12 Years a Slave treats themes of justice, cruelty and the quintessential human right: freedom. The Oscar winner for Best Picture in 2014, 12 Years a Slave will slap you upside the face with the cruelty depicted, and also warm you with its emotional scenes. At its core there is a struggle between good and evil, between hope and despair. Displaying exceptional performances from a stellar cast, this movie does not blink while examining America’s original sins: the practice of slavery.

2. The Searchers

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When a Comanche raid on a homestead sends members of Ethan Edward’s (John Wayne) family to an early grave, Ethan vows to rescue the survivors. A Civil War veteran with a bloodthirsty hatred of Indians, Ethan sets out with his nephew on what turns into a long search for Debbie, the one girl left alive. A story of depravity and vengeance, The Searchers also reminds us of the kind of men who shot and burned their way through a continent. Widely regarded as a classic Western, here is John Wayne at his best: drawling, racist, brave, driven. Watch it, and count how many times he says, “That’ll be the day.”

3. There Will Be Blood

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A man drills deep into the earth and what comes up is black, black, black. A rags-to-riches tale told over the westward expansion during the age of robber barons, There Will Be Blood captures the psyche of a man, and a nation, willing to do anything to have it all. But what is left when you have all you ever wanted? Oil is the symbol for what ugliness can buy, and, mainly, what it cannot. Daniel Day Lewis delivers an enduring performance, one that traces a perfect arc from nothing to everything. It idealizes an image of the American West, when coastline in California, and everything on the way to California, was there for the taking. If you were willing to do anything to have it.

4. Forrest Gump

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America loves the affable fool. The bumbling idiot with a heart of gold. Born in Alabama, Forrest Gump, a boy with a low average IQ, runs his way out of leg braces onto the football field at the University of Alabama. After that, he also runs in and out of the war in Vietnam and all the way across the country. Full of serendipity, beauty, love and pain, winding in fits and starts through milestone events of the sixties, Forrest Gump unveils the brighter side of American life: sacrifice, generosity, and a charming naivety.

5. The Big Lebowski

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Sometimes, you just want to get your rug back—especially if it really ties the room together. Filled with absurdity and varied characters—though they’re all white except for Jesus: a ‘pederast’ Cuban—The Big Lebowski clearly depicts the factors that make American life what it is: something slightly off, and vague in meaning. It suggests an antidote to the busy lives we live with The Dude,’ who takes it as it comes. Mix up a White Russian and lie back in your bathrobe, his lifestyle suggests, while the chaos revolves outside.