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Seven Extraordinary Historical Figures Depicted in Film

Are you interested in learning about social reform, scientific innovation, and famous artists? One of the best ways to discover history is to study the individuals that made it. I have compiled a list of seven biopic films on key figures from recent history, from abolitionist Harriet Tubman to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, which I feel encapsulate the relevance and importance of learning about history today. Feel free to check out these titles and many more with a Crimson or Borrower’s Card at Wells Library’s Media Services. Also, take a look at our library guide (libguide, for short) on the Media Services website, which lists history databases designed to help you find streaming videos. As with all prominent figures, it can be difficult to separate the facts from embellishments. This is especially true in the film medium, where dramatic arc and short duration influence storytelling choices. For that reason, additional resources for further exploration are provided at the end of the post.

1. Harriet (2019): Harriet Tubman

Poster for the movie Harriet
Harriet. Digtal Image.

Following one of America’s greatest heroes, Harriet depicts the life and achievements of Harriet Tubman–from her escape from slavery to her work with the Underground Railroad in the 1850s. All in all, she traveled hundreds of miles in nineteen journeys to escort many enslaved people to freedom and is the most famous “conductor” of the Underground Railroad. Tubman would then go on to become a spy for the Union in the Civil War, and would live until her early nineties.

Cynthia Erivo’s outstanding performance earned her an Oscar nomination in 2020. Harriet Tubman truly lived an extraordinary life, and her bravery serves as an inspiration to all.

2. At Eternity’s Gate (2018): Vincent van Gogh

Willem Dafoe gives a noteworthy performance in this artistic biopic as the Dutch painter we all know and love: Vincent van Gogh. Throughout the movie, the viewer goes on a journey with Van Gogh himself, making for a creative and unique storytelling experience.

Picturesque settings throughout France, ripe with color and motion, mimic Van Gogh’s Post-Impressionist style of painting. When the film ended, I had a strong urge to visit IU’s Eskenazi Art Museum. While it does not feature a Van Gogh, it does hold paintings from many of his important contemporaries, including Claude Monet, and others such as Picasso and Pisarro who followed

Cover for the movie At Eternity's Gate
At Eternity’s Gate. Digital Image.

3. Michael Collins (1996): Michael Collins

Cover for the movie Michael Collins
Michael Collins. Digital Image.

This historical biopic follows Irish independence leader Michael Collins in his long and violent fight for Irish sovereignty in the early twentieth century. Collins successfully negotiated a peace treaty with the British, causing Ireland to be divided by a Civil War, pitting friends and family members against one another.

With a stellar performance by Liam Neeson and a score that enhances the enormity of Collins’ actions, watching this movie left me deeply moved and yearning to learn more about my own Irish ancestry.

4. Gandhi (1982): Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi is one historical figure everyone has heard of. My father teaches seventh grade world history and shows this film every year. The story of Gandhi is surprisingly similar to that of Michael Collins–a relatively unknown person becomes a political leader and rises against British oppression, coordinating a pact which would then unfortunately lead to a partition of the country and even harsher violence and an assassination.

While Gandhi does gloss over aspects of racist ideas from his early adulthood in South Africa, the film tells a moving story of his leadership of the peaceful protests in India in the 1940s.

Cover for the movie Gandhi
Gandhi. Digital Image.

5. The Theory of Everything (2014): Stephen Hawking

Cover for the movie The Theory of Everything.
The Theory of Everything. Digital Image.

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones star as Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde in this biopic film based on their time at Cambridge University, where they both excelled in their coursework. When Stephen is diagnosed with motor neuron disease, their relationship is tested to its limits, making them even stronger together than before.

Stephen Hawking, who recently passed in 2018, was credited with pioneering many scientific discoveries, such as the Big Bang Theory, and broke many boundaries through his work with black holes. His wife, Jane Hawking, was also very accomplished and held a doctorate in Medieval Spanish poetry. This film is an excellent look into the sacrifices the pair made for each other, and how their lives were changed after Stephen’s diagnosis

6. Milk (2008): Harvey Milk

Milk follows the story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, in his push for equal rights in 1970s San Francisco. Although he faced much opposition, Harvey persevered with great tenacity and implemented numerous progressive changes that gave hope to the LGBT community.

Sadly, Harvey was assassinated by fellow board supervisor Dan White, who then only served five years of a seven-year prison sentence after receiving the minimum punishment from a jury of his peers. Milk is an Oscar-winning, highly-praised film with stellar performances by Sean Penn, Diego Luna, and Josh Brolin.

Cover for the movie Milk.
Milk. Digital Image.

7. On the Basis of Sex: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Cover for the movies On the Basis of Sex
On the Basis of Sex. Digital Image.

The final figure on this list is “The Notorious” RBG, aka Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg. That’s a mouthful! On the Basis of Sex follows RBG’s struggles against a misogynistic system, and tells the story of her fight for women’s equality.

After being being declined by many law firms, Ruth becomes a professor and goes on to argue a case that would set the precedent for many discriminatory laws to be overturned. RBG, who recently passed in September, 2020, would serve as a justice for 27 years after being appointed in 1993 by Clinton. Through quiet confidence, RBG became a symbol for equality and women’s rights.

What do you think of this list? Are there any historical figures you’d like to see a movie about? I am still waiting for a movie about Sacagawea and the Lewis and Clark expeditions. The story of this Lemhi Shoshone woman is a great one. Along with helping guide and interpret for the explorers while carrying her newborn child on her back, she put up with her lousy French fur-trapping husband, whom Lewis wrote was “perhaps the most timid waterman in the world.MN

Student blogger Matthew Nokes joined Media Services in May 2022, and is a senior studying history at IU. He is president of the History Undergraduate Student Association, and this is his first blog post for Media Beat.

Harriet Tubman

Baltimore Sun review (2004): Harriet Tubman’s 3 Biographies

The three Tubman biographies reviewed above are available at IU Bloomington. Below are the IUCAT records for each:

Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, portrait of an American hero

Harriet Tubman: The life and the life stories

Harriet Tubman: The road to freedom

Also, check out this documentary featuring a modern dance based on Tubman’s life entitled “The Called Her Moses,” by award-winning choreographer Donald McKayle.

Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh: The Letters (Lilly Library)

Van Gogh: The Life

Michael Collins

The man who made Ireland: the life and death of Michael Collins

Michael Collins: The man and the revolution

Mahatma Gandhi

The moral and political writings of Mahatma Gandhi

The moral basis of vegetarianism

Gandhi: A select bibliographic guide

Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking: A Biography

The nature of space and time, by Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose

Harvey Milk

Gayvote: News from the San Francisco Gay Democratic Club

An Archive of Hope: Harvey Milk’s speeches and writings

Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Justice, justice thou shalt pursue: a life’s work fighting for a more perfect union, by Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Amanda L. Tyler

Text, cases, and materials on constitutional aspects of sex-based discrimination by Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Kenneth M. Davidson

RBG (video documentary)

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