It’s the 4th of July in America — jokingly referred to by my British friends as “the war of Yankee aggression” — and that means a few things. Heat waves. Pool parties. Time with family and friends. Beer. Brats. Barbecues. And of course displays of fireworks and patriotism from Americans of all stripes, lighting up the night sky most everywhere as the rocket’s red glare did for Francis Scott Keyall those years ago when he wrote “The Star Spangled Banner.”
One other readily recognizable occurrence will permeate the American night with all those other things: the sound of police sirens where fireworks are illegal in this country and indeed where they are legal too. Our first responders always have their hands full July 4th enforcing those laws and taking care of people who party too hard and make stupid decisions.
Our first responders are vital to our national fabric and heroes even if the laws they are tasked with enforcing are many times kind of onerous — it is our prerogative as Americans to use our freedom and individual liberty to elect legislators who will change or dispense with those unjust laws and to resist them as best we can in a peaceful manner. THAT is what the 4th of July is about — the spirit of America is a spirit of skepticism about power: resisting and fighting it when it should be resisted and fought.
It’s in our DNA and our collective unconscious as Americans to fight the power. From the American Revolution to the Civil War, Women’s Suffrage, fighting Prohibition legally to WWI and II to the Civil Rights Movement (and other rights movements) and into the Age of Trump, resistance and fighting for what’s right, what we believe in, is in our bones. It defines our legacy as a people.
We hope you enjoy this list of 10 films (in no particular order — just some favorites) all about resistance and fighting the power, fighting for what’s right. May they kindle (or rekindle) in you the spirit of what it means to be an American on our nation’s birthday.
Good Night and Good Luck tells the true story of crusading TV journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) as he waged a crusade to bring down Senator Joseph McCarthy amid the Senator’s communist witch hunt in the 1950’s which gave birth to “McCarthyism” and “The McCarthy Era” as terms during the Cold War, fueling a “Red Scare” — not to mention the many violations McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) committed against the constitutional rights of individuals they thought were communists. George Clooney directs.
Thomas Jefferson once said the “only security of all is in a free press”. This is as true now as it was in 1823 when Jefferson said it to the Marquis de Lafayette, despite the cries of “fake news” and politicians calling the press an “enemy of the people”, while a shooter targeted a Maryland newsroom for his carnage this past week. Good Night and Good Luck is but one journalism film on this list, but it is a good and necessary one. Murrow’s pioneering example of fighting the power is an inspiration to us all.
2008’s Milk tells the true story of California’s first openly gay elected officialHarvey Milk and his assassination in 1978 at age 48 by fellow city supervisor Dan White (played by Josh Brolin in the film), a conservative who campaigned on law and order and family values — his trial for gunning Milk down originated the myth of “the twinkie defense”. White killed himself in 1985. Sean Penn took the 2009 Oscar for his performance as Milk the San Francisco supervisor business man, entrepreneur, and civic leader in a community he cared deeply about. Gus Van Sant directs.
Spencer Tracy’s thunderous performance as the attorney arguing for his client’s right to think (“he wishes to think!”) is one of my favorites in any movie of any subject, and is embedded below. Tracy’s famous courtroom speech always gives me chills whenever I am lucky enough to see it again. Stanley Kramerdirects.
The film is based on the 1955 stage play which is in turn based on the very real Scopes “Monkey” Trial in 1925, where defendant John Scopes was arrested for teaching evolution in his Tennessee public school classroom — a violation of state law at the time, for which Scopes was found guilty July 21, 1925.
Tracy’s Henry Drummond is based on noted agnostic Chicago attorney (who defended Leopold & Loeb, the inspiration for Hitchcock’s Rope) and steadfast fighter for civil rights Clarence Darrow, who took Scopes’s case; while Fredric March’s Matthew Harrison Brady is based on orator and politician William Jennings Bryan who prosecuted the trial. See actual transcripts of the trial here.
Gene Kelly’s E.K. Hornbeck is based on journalist, satirist, and legendary social commentator H.L. Mencken who’s newspaper The Baltimore Sun did actually pay for part of Scopes’s defense. See Mencken’s full coverage of the Scopes Trial here.
Sidney Poitier’s Detective Virgil Tibbs is a perennial example of true bad assery in film — a fighter through and through against the rampant injustice and racism around him, and not your typical action star: a man who carries that bad ass quality because of who he is and the kind of man he is, not the type of fisticuffs he gets in (although Tibbs does that when he needs to). More intelligent than any cop in the small town in Mississippi where he is reluctantly enlisted to investigate a murder, Tibbs is dogged and he doesn’t take the racist crap the white cops (with Rod Steiger playing their chief) keep springing on him, which Tibbs ultimately returns with an unprecedented (and unscripted) slap to the face of a rich white man (played by Larry Gates) on film. Norman Jewison directs.
In the Heat of the Night was not just revolutionary for these reasons though — it was also essentially the first film in Hollywood history to actually light a black actor accurately. See more on this incredibly innovative film at 51 in my write-up on it here, including the stories of the racism Poitier faced off set and why production had to be headquartered in southern Illinois, not Mississippi.
1940 War had already broken out on the European continent when Germany invaded Poland a year before. Still, the United States wouldn’t enter the fray for another whole year.
It is both the execution of and the zeitgeist it was executed in that makes writer, director and performer Charles Chaplin’s The Great Dictator one of the most brilliant and brave pieces of satire ever filmed. Chaplin plays both a Jewish barber and the dictator Hynkel in the film — both of which are speaking parts.
Comedian and warrior for free speech Lenny Bruce once said, “Satire is tragedy plus time. You give it enough time, the public, the reviewers, will allow you to satirize it. Which is rather ridiculous when you think about it.” Chaplin showed just how brave and potent a weapon satire can be when he pointed the very explicit satire in The Great Dictator directly and unequivocally at Adolf Hitler — before we were even in a war with him. The film also has one of the most powerful speeches in all of cinema in it which you can watch above.
Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford bring to life this true story of freedom of the press keeping a president’s power in check as reporters Carl Bernstein(Hoffman) and Bob Woodward (Redford) uncover and fight to publish the original details of the Watergate Scandal in The Washington Post. Watergate ultimately caused President Richard Nixon to resign. Alan J. Pakula directs.
It wouldn’t be Independence Day without a film on the American Revolution, would it? Roland Emmerich directs this tale of how the Revolution effected a fictional family — a concept very much based on how too often the war effected very real families too, tearing them apart both literally and figuratively (along loyalty lines). Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger star.
You may not have expected to find a film like Joy on this list. Jennifer Lawrenceplays Joy Mangano, inventor of the Miracle Mop (see a early infomercial from Joy below) and president of Ingenious Designs, LLC. David O. Russell directs.
Joy is a tale of resistance to social tyranny that can arise through things like rigid gender expectations. Joy as a character had to fight those and use her incredible drive, intellect, and work ethic to live her dream and forge paths for women everywhere.
George Orwell’s tale of a dystopian future where “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” seems to be all to reflective of the modern world where the government seeks to regulate everything we do and watches us endlessly with Big Brother (a phrase Orwell coined in “1984”), just look at NSA spying. Despite its name, 1984 is sadly always a timely tale of tyranny and those who dare to fight it.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington did quite a bit to put star James Stewart and director Frank Capra on the map. In it, Stewart plays a naive man who is appointed to fill a senate seat and sent to Washington D.C. Where he soon clashes with the entrenched and corrupt political machine. Still our titular hero does not back down in his dogged and fortuitous pursuit of change.
While I personally am not a huge fan of very early Jimmy Stewart (I prefer him around 1954 and 1958 when he was arguably a different Stewart in Rear Window and Vertigo respectively), Mr. Smith’s untiring pursuit of what’s right, combined with Capra’s artful direction, make this a must-see and inspirational American classic that reminds us all why we fight.
What is your favorite movie that fights the power? Let me know on Twitter @HaubrichNoir