(CNN)While Independence Day is dedicated to celebrating the abundant virtues of the United States of America, it’s also worth taking a moment to reflect on those flashpoints in the nation’s history where the country’s character was tested and democracy threatened to falter. That kind of epic existential drama is, of course, a natural lure for Hollywood storytellers.
For a more serious look at the more troubled aspects of the American experience, the following films can inspire both hope and despair, but all make excellent starting points for deeper conversations.
The first prominent big-screen effort to shed light on the complicated role of black Union soldiers during the Civil War, fighting racism within their own ranks as well as the threat of torture and execution by Confederate troops committed to the cause of slavery. Denzel Washington, in a fiery star-making turn, leads a remarkable cast under Ed Zwick’s assured, sensitive direction.
“All The President’s Men” (1976)
Surely no film has been as timely, coming hotly on the heels of the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon, chronicling the intrepid, painstaking investigative efforts of journalists Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) to expose Nixon’s abuses of power. It remains a shining argument for freedom of the press.
“Selma” (2014) and “Malcolm X” (1992)
No exploration of the combative Civil Rights era would be complete without close looks at the two dramatically contrasting leaders of the movement. In “Selma,” filmmaker Ava Duvernay explores the dangerous 1965 voting rights march led by Dr. Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) as national tensions mount, where even King’s cool head and firm resolve are challenged. Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” depicts the events that led to the radicalization of the outspoken activist (Denzel Washington) and his own reevaluation of his racial rhetoric prior to his assassination.
The weaponization of political agendas reached an ugly zenith during Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusades of the 1950s, illustrated all too vividly in the persecution of Dalton Trumbo (uncannily evoked by Bryan Cranston), a Hollywood screenwriter with far-left ties, who must find inventive ways for he and his colleagues to survive when their industry blacklists them.
The world could quite literally have come to an end during the unbearably tense 13-day period that defined the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, where America and the U.S.S.R. stood eye to eye waiting for the other to blink over the deployment of Soviet missiles on the Communist nation just 90 miles off the US coast, save for the considered brinksmanship of John F. Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) and his senior staff, including a cannily cautious advisor (Kevin Costner).
Capturing the day-to-day experience of an illegal immigrant (a brilliantly subtle Demián Bichir) trying to provide for his family while staying quietly under the radar of the authorities, director Chris Weitz’s ground-level chronicle reveals the potential for catastrophic, life-altering upheaval that can occur when even smallest thing go awry.