28 May 2012

A Parting Gift to My ESL Class in U.S. History & Culture, 20 American Films to Enhance Their Understanding of the U.S.

I teach English at the greatest ESL school in San Francisco – and probably the entire country. I am very lucky. In addition to two general English classes, this past term I've taught a class in U.S. History & Culture. Meeting for 80 minutes twice a week over 10 weeks, I've covered the history of the U.S. from colonial America to the 1960s (it was as far as I could get). I tried to give my students a feeling for the most formative experiences in the history of this country, covering as best as I could the stories of the American Revolution, the Constitution, Slavery, the diaspora and borderline genocide of the Native Americans, Manifest Destiny, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crowism, Civil Rights, U.S. Imperialism, Immigration, the Women's Movement, the U.S. in World Wars I and II, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, McCarthyism and the culture revolution of the 1960's. Then in the second week....

My class, which meets twice more, has had students from Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Japan, Italy, France, Belgian, Switzerland, China, Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil, most between the ages of 18 and 30. They have tolerated my quips and occasional meanderings, and contributed their questions and energy. I am leaving them with this list of 20 films that can further their understanding of this country in various ways. I was careful to select a variety of films. The principal criteria was that they all be bloody good movies. There's no use watching a movie designed to further your understanding of something if said movie stinks.

The list  easily could have been four times as long. But really, how many of these are they going to have the time or inclination to see? Plus, as the list is annotated, I barely had the time to go beyond twenty. It should be noted that none of these films are meant to be a stand-alone lesson on anything in U.S. History; instead, they are meant to give a feeling for an event, time or trend, or show how Americans view themselves.

Rather than waste a lot more paper by printing the list, I'm providing it on this forum so they can have easy access to it, and so that my army of faithful readers (both of us) may see it as well. So in no particular order, here goes:

Glory (1989) The best Civil War film yet made, which come to think of it, isn't saying a whole lot. But it's a wonderful movie about the first truly successful all Black regiment, the 54th, to see action in the war. Their heroism proved to Lincoln and many others the bravery of African American fighting men. Top notch performances by Denzel Washington (an Oscar for it), Morgan Freeman and Matthew Broderick.

All the President's Men (1976) The story of how to reporters for the Washington Post were central to breaking the Watergate scandal that ultimately brought down an American president. It is a celebration of the American newspaperman and freedom of the press. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman star as Woodward and Bernstein, respectively. A great supporting cast helped make this a captivating tale.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) An examination of three American servicemen who've just returned from helping the U.S. win World War II. It is a frank look at America immediately post-war and the not-so-easy transition for many veterans. A slice of Americana topped with doses of reality. William Wyler directed an all star cast featuring Dana Andrews, Frederich March, Harold Russell, and Myrna Loy.

Wild Boys of the Road (1933) A no-holds barred look at life for young people during the Great Depression. William Wellman directed this school-of-hard-knocks film which was made during the height of the depression. These are not Andy Hardy teens, but the rough tumble experience of kids on the road looking for something better–and frankly– not finding it.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940) The classic depression-era film from John Steinbeck's novel directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda. The story of the Joads who escape Oklahoma's Dust Bowl for California only to find labor strife, oppression and more dashed hopes. One of the great films of all time.

Platoon (1986) Based on director Oliver Stone's own experiences as a soldier in Vietnam, this is a frank and reportedly quite accurate look at life in an American platoon. Charlie Sheen starred with a dynamic supporting cast featuring Willem Defoe and Tom Berenger.

Meet John Doe (1941) America looks at itself during the Depression and sees much that could go wrong (fascism) and much that could go right if people's voices are heard. There are lessons here about late 1930's America, the press, populism and political bosses. The John Doe movement will remind many of the pitfalls of the current Tea Party and their ongoing service to the 1%.

My Darling Clementine (1946) A classic Western from John Ford based on the Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and O.K. Corral shootout legends. It's a typically visually beautiful Ford film, and thus is a romanticization of the Old West. Not so much to be seen for its limited historical content, but as a look at the American Western.

Goodfellas (1990) Another American classic – the Gangster film. This one from Martin Scorcese is based on actual events in the life of Henry Hill. It features the quintessential gangster performances from Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci. Goodfellas is a fascinating look both at the realities of modern gangster life and the romanticization of gangsters in American culture.

The Godfather Part 2 (1974) Another Gangster film, this one has the added plus of revealing a lot about immigration and American city life in the early 1900s. Later we see gangsters all cleaned up and facing a congressional committee. A strong commentary about the marriage of political and mob power.

Milk (2008) The true story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the United States. Sean Penn is remarkable in the title role of a film that tells an important chapter in the history not just of Gay rights in the U.S., but people's rights.

Malcolm X (1992) The true story of another genuine American hero, Malcolm X (neé Little and later El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz). Spike Lee directed this compelling biopic about the transition of one man from a small-time hood and convicted felon to an important national political figure. Reviled by whites and later by the Nation of Islam after he rejected the sect in favor of more traditional (and less corrupted) Muslim worship and teachings.

Boyz N the Hood (1991) Life in the hood circa 1990. One of the few films ever to successfully  tackle the experience of inner city life for African Americans This is director John Singleton's unflinching look at the harsh realities and violence central to the experience of growing up for Black youth in America. It is still very much relevant today.

Gangs of New York (2002) In addition to everything else this fine film from Martin Scorsese has going for it, Gangs of New York is an excellent look at, well, gangs in 19th century America. Indeed, the film captures the sights and sounds of the era about as well as one can imagine is possible. Daniel Day-Lewis's portrayal of a gang leader is a great film performance.

The Front (1976) Woody Allen stars, but does not direct (yes, that Woody Allen), in perhaps Hollywood's best look at McCarythism in general and the blacklisting of people in the entertainment in particular. Allen plays a man who fronts for several blacklisted writers and sees first hand the costs of the Red Scare to the innocent individual. Zero Mostel is excellent as a troubled comic.

Saving Private Ryan (1998) This film from director Steven Spielberg embodies the current U.S. view of the heroic American solider of World War II. It is a sentimentalization of the inferno which engulfed Europe and Asia. Still, it is a damn good film and its scenes on the beaches of Normandy are as realistic as a person could want to see. Today's American soldier – and his sacrifices on the battlefield – are being dramatized and propagandized out of any reasonable proportion, and this film is a classic example of that new ethos.

The Big Trail (1930)This little known gem is far and away the bet film on the perils of the wagon train in mid 19th century America. There are melodramatic twists added to the tale, but there is much to admire about this incredibly detailed and visually sweeping look at a bygone time in U.S. history. Raoul Walsh directed in a wide screen process that was not to become popular for another 20 years.

The Strawberry Statement (1970) The ultimate 1960's - early 1970s American protest film, and it was made at the time. There is much to dismiss about a lot of the acting and the production values, but the soundtrack is spot on and the feeling of change and protest of the time has never been done better. Watch a love-struck young man join a campus protest  get caught up in events (as many of us did). Unfortunately, the film is not currently available on DVD and is rarely shown on TV, but it can be found on Amazon's On- Demand.

Dances With Wolves (1990) Kevin Costner's sweeping epic about an American soldier of the late 1860's who joins a Sioux tribe. A rare film that sympathises with Native Americans, it also gives a hint of tribal life, particularly with the coming encroachment of whites. It underscores the unique culture of the Plains Indians and their tragic fate in the face of white expansion.

The Roaring Twenties (1939) A great lesson in the terrible price of Prohibition as told through the mercurial rise and epic fall of one gangster, Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney). This is also the classic Gangster film of Hollywood's Golden Age.








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