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History at the movies: The 20 best films of the decade and how to use them

There’s nothing like watching a movie in a big screen theater – the kind that bans small children and has heated reclining seats –  holding a mega-tub of popcorn with a side of nacho cheese and a Diet Pepsi.

(You mean you don’t dip individual pieces of popcorn into nacho cheese while watching movies? While then . . . you’re welcome.)

And it’s even better when the movie is history related.

I’ve written about movies before. Because I like movies. I’m also convinced, when used appropriately, that they’re great teaching and learning tools. And a recent Smithsonian article highlighting their choices for best history movies of the last ten years got me thinking. So now I’m curious . . . what were the best movies of the last decade? Maybe more important, how can we use them as part of our instruction?

While the Smithsonian and I agree a couple of choices, my list of favorites from 2010 to 2020 goes off on a few tangents. And you’re right. These are mostly movies that appeared in wide distribution, were commercially successful, and there’s definitely a US history centric vibe – cause these are my faves. Your list might focus more on world history indie films.

So feel free jump into the comments and share your faves – wide distribution, just a few cities, world history focus, documentary, mini-series, streaming service, obscure or premium TV cable channel, I’m okay with pretty much anything. Got a few disagreements with my list? I’m okay with that too.

Here we go:

The King’s Speech (2010)
Scenes from the 1930s and 40s provide insight to British class differences and royalty as well as how events of World II impacted Great Britain. And who doesn’t love Colin Firth? (You’ve got some tie-ins to the period further down the list. Don’t hesitate to create some awesome mashups.)

The Pacific (2010)
Technically not a movie, I suppose. But since Band of Brothers is one of my favorite movies / mini-series / TV shows of all time, The Pacific gets in because Tom Hanks says it should get in. Plus . . . it’s actually pretty good.

Moneyball (2011)
Brad Pitt coaching the Oakland A’s? Absolutely. I didn’t say every movie on the list is perfect for classroom instruction. Though if I’m teaching just about any Econ class, this seems like a no-brainer.

Argo (2012)
Perfect for talking about relationships between US, the West, and the Mideast. And if your kids haven’t noticed, there’s just a little bit of a past and present connection thing going on right now. Definitely a way to introduce events in the region.

Lincoln (2012)
Historical accurate? Maybe not (see below for more on that.) But I love the legislative horse-trading, the arm-twisting, and the compromise. What better way to help kids start to see the relationship between the different branches of government?

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Does the movie try to justify America’s controversial torture program? Is there some truth stretching in the events depicted? Did the killing of Osama bin Laden solve all of our problems? And what about the lack of respect for women analysts? All great questions.

12 Years a Slave (2013)
More than a memoir, this is a disturbing and emotional and violent depiction of the American system of slavery. All part of our past . . . and our present. Be a bit selective in the pieces you use but use it you must.

The Imitation Game (2014)
There’s a lot to unpack here. History. Math. Good versus evil. Sexism. Moral decisions of right and wrong. LGBT issues. And a handy tool for introducing all of that as part of your instruction.

Selma (2014)
John Lewis is one of my heroes. To see him through this lens and to get just a sliver of what it would have been like for residents of Selma to step out the way they did? Incredible. Bonus? You get MLK and LBJ. Nice way for kids to think about racism, the past and present of white supremacy movements, and the relationships between grass root protests and government intervention.

Hidden Figures 2016
I love NASA and space. I love underdog heroes. So this is a no-brainer. (It’s worth it for the opening scene alone.) But it’s obviously a great way to jump-start conversations around both racism and sexism.

Dunkirk (2017)
The braiding together of the different timelines through this movie is incredible. And together with the next movie on my list, a powerful introduction to the place and events of the time.

Darkest Hour (2017)
I’ve never met Churchill but I’m pretty sure Oldman’s depiction is pretty dang close to the actual thing. Another one of those movies that can be looked at as both a primary and secondary source. (And don’t forget The King’s Speech in all of this.)

On the Basis of Sex (2018)
Have always enjoyed courtroom dramas and I love RBG. So this is an easy call for me.

Outlaw King (2018)
It’s no Braveheart but a lot of me actually likes this version better. There are accuracy issues here but still like it.

BlacKkKlansman (2018)
Racism is a complex thing. And I love that Spike Lee used this particular set of events to help us talk about it. The events depicted happened back during the 70s but this is still a powerful connection to current events.

The Hate U Give (2018)
Young Adult fiction has a lot that we can use as instructional tools. This is a great example.

The Post 2018
Basically a documentary about the importance of the Bill of Rights with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep doing it right. And helping kids understand the importance of and protecting freedom of the press has never been more crucial.

They Shall Not Grow Old (2019)
I saw this on an IMAX screen. Holy powerful images, Batman. Obviously not a fictional account and not really a typical documentary. More of a collection of oral histories in an amazing package. And if used together later with the current 1917 movie? Incredible.

1917 (2019)
A fictional account of World War One based somewhat on actual events, 1917 does a nice job detailing trench warfare, battlefield conditions, and the mentality of military leaders of the time.

Apollo 11 (2019)
I am a huge NASA and Apollo space nerd. This is a phenomenal documentary showcasing the Space Race and America’s Apollo program. Perfect for highlighting aspects of the Cold War.

Frequently Asked Questions about movies in the classroom:

What about copyright?
Yeah. We often don’t think about this very much. And we should. The good news? You’re almost always going to be okay.

Copyright law allows:

. . . the performance or display of a work by instructors or pupils in the course of face-to-face teaching activities of a nonprofit educational institution, in a classroom or similar place devoted to instruction.

This applies to the showing of entire films and also to smaller clips from a variety of sources. Keep in mind the restrictions:

  • The movie must be during face-to-face teaching
  • The movie must be viewed in a physical classroom or other place of instruction
  • The movie must be shown using a lawfully obtained copy
  • The movie must be a part of instruction and directly related to the content being taught

“In a physical classroom” means your actual physical space. This means you can’t upload a movie or clip to Canvas or Google Classroom as homework. But other than that much of what you’re doing is probably going to be fine.

What about using a video on a streaming services like Netflix?
If you’re not using a physical copy of some kind like a DVD, are you okay using a personal streaming service in the classroom? Hmmm . . . probably.

Start by understanding that the user agreement you checked off on when you created your Netflix account prohibits showing movies in a public venue. Same with Hulu and Amazon Prime.

Subject to payment of any charges to rent, purchase, or access Digital Content, and your compliance with all terms of this Agreement, Amazon grants you a . . . limited license, during the applicable Viewing Period, to access and view the Digital Content in accordance with the Usage Rules, for personal, non-commercial, private use.

Although classroom use would be non-commercial, streaming services wouldn’t see it as personal or private use. Amazon could theoretically cancel your account for a violation. Same with Netflix and Hulu.

But much has been written about this with media specialists and system admins on both sides – some saying it’s okay and some not. This seems less of a copyright issue and more about a licensing thing with the streaming service.

So . . . you show a snippet of Band of Brothers (cause it’s awesome) using your personal Amazon Prime account in your face to face classroom. Are you in violation of copyright? Probably not. Could Netflix enforce its license agreement and cancel your subscription because you violated the licensing agreement? Yes, it could. Would it? Probably not. It’s a pain in the butt and it would look bad on social media.

So there ya go. Clear as mud. (And don’t forget, I am not a lawyer nor do I play one on TV. This is not legal advice.)

Do I need a clear purpose for showing the video?
Copyright law says yes. Best practice says yes. Your purpose could be a variety of things:

  • Building historical content / knowledge
  • Exploring bias / perspective
  • Creating an emotional connection
  • Corroborating primary source evidence
  • Connecting to other primary and secondary evidence to build a multimedia text set
  • Exploring the bigger picture and context of an event, place, or time
  • Comparing / contrasting time, place, or people
  • Using film as an actual primary source

How often should we use a movie in the classroom?
Just like any other piece of evidence. If it fits, it fits. But just like anything else, use some common sense. Two or three times a week with a long video clip? You’re probably pushing it.

How much of a movie should you use?
Never the whole thing. I once showed the entire four hours and 31 minutes of the movie Gettysburg to 8th graders. I was also an idiot. Pick and choose the pieces that help accomplish your clear purpose.

(But there are always exceptions to the rule. I could be convinced that something as powerful as Glory or Schindler’s List deserve the full meal deal. Especially in a partnership with an ELA teacher.)

What about historical accuracy?
I love this Edutopia article. Lots of great ideas for intentionally using historically inaccurate movies. But a few suggestions and ideas to think about even if we’re not doing it intentionally:

  • We need to be aware of the historical inaccuracies ourselves
  • Use the movie or clip as a “primary source” and use primary source analysis worksheets to help kids make sense of it.
  • Ask students to act as if they’re outside historical consultants (i.e. Band of Brothers used 101st Airborne vets) and critique the film with an expert’s eye
  • Have kids write either imitation or actual Netflix reviews highlighting historical errors
  • Work with students to corroborate what they watch with other primary sources
  • Compare and contrast film characters with the actual people
  • Students can develop their own movie trailers
  • Always have a debrief after viewing. Ask things like: What choices did the screenwriter or director make? Why? Do you think the intent was to create a historically accurate movie? What choices would students have made if they had been the screenwriter? (Especially after they have more content and context.)

What movies should you show?
A quick Google search can help – “best history movies list high school” “list movies history classroom” “best movie British colonialism” The Interwebs are a wonderful thing. Take advantage. You can also just start here to find a long list ready to use.

I’m guessing that most of you already have some sort of building movie policy in place that may restrict what movies are allowed. Start there but don’t be afraid to butt your head up against it. Especially at the high school, there are movies that can be powerful learning tools that your policy may not allow. Go to bat on behalf of your kids. Provide options for those students who might opt out.

There are some nice resources available:
Start with this Twitter hashtag:
#HATM. A nice way to connect with other K-12 and higher ed teachers who are all using movies, asking questions, and sharing resources. Be sure to check out this article about the group. (And if you really want to jump in with both feet and most of your torso . . . every Sunday at 8 p.m. ET,  #HATM folks watch the same movie as they tweet along, sharing insight, tidbits, and punchlines.)

Then head over to the NCSS Social Education article, The Reel History of the World: Teaching World History with Major Motion Pictures. Its focus is obviously on world history but it has some nice generic type tips.

There are also numerous print resources to help:

Lots of other useful online tools out there. Check out these three for more ideas and suggestions:


What does your list look like? What tips can you share?

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Glenn is a curriculum and tech integration specialist, speaker, and blogger with a passion for technology and social studies. He delivers engaging professional learning across the country with a focus on consulting, presentations, and keynotes. Find out more about Glenn and how you might learn together by going to his Work with Me page.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sherry Bandy #

    This is a helpful post. I am sharing with my history teacher candidates.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Sherry Bandy GaTAPP Coordinator NW GA RESA

    January 20, 2020
    • glennw #

      So glad you found it useful. Have a great week!


      January 20, 2020

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