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12 Historical Classics Like Emancipation You Should Watch

Getting a limited run in theaters and a release on Apple TV+ in early December, "Emancipation" is set during the American Civil War in the days following President Abraham Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. With the Proclamation promising freedom to all enslaved people in Southern states, until-recently enslaved folks now face the challenging task of escaping from their former lives for something better. For Peter (Will Smith), the journey ahead is marked with bloodshed, tragedy, and above all, perseverance.

With many scenes that can be tough to watch, "Emancipation" joins the ranks of recent projects that longtime and at times controversial actor Will Smith has taken on that tackle more serious themes. Though the journey his character takes over the course of the film is inspiring, it's admittedly been met with somewhat mixed reception so far. That said, we think "Emancipation" is a worthwhile watch for anyone with a love for history, and a fitting companion to the 12 films we'll be taking a look at below.


In the Southern state of Maryland some time before the Civil War, Araminta "Minty" Ross (Cynthia Erivo) is happily married to her husband, a free African American named John Tubman. When evidence comes to light that Araminta should have been freed at birth by law, it's cruelly rejected by her owners, leaving her with little choice but to plan a daring escape. Upon completion of the perilous journey to freedom, Araminta, now known as Harriet Tubman, dedicates her life to helping others avoid spending their own lives enslaved.

While many of our readers are likely familiar with the name Harriet Tubman, the historical abolitionist surprisingly didn't have a proper film documenting her incredible life until very recently. The 2019 biographical drama succeeds by following Tubman's life from her time as a slave all the way to her ascension into the pages of history. While the film is not without flaws, some of which being the film's inability to fully cover its protagonist's many real-life achievements, "Harriet" is worth your time and a long overdue retelling of her contributions to humanity.


Though the final shots of the Civil War were fired a very long time ago, many of the same prejudices and ideas that were fought against in the conflict are unfortunately still alive — a dire situation "Mudbound" takes an unfiltered look at. Set in rural Mississippi shortly after the conclusion of World War II, the film chronicles poor families from different races forced to share the same stretch of land, which only serves to exacerbate the underlying tensions. An opportunity to break the cycle presents itself in the form of returning war veterans Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) who return home to find life at home, in many ways, just as hostile as their time abroad.

The 2017 drama is an example of the rare film that's almost universally appreciated by its viewers, partly due to an important message that's similar to one of the overarching themes of "Emancipation." Beyond the expertly crafted story, though, "Mudbound" calls upon some pretty talented actors to bring its tragic story to life. In addition to the aforementioned leads, fans of "Breaking Bad" will likely recognize Jonathan Banks in this one as Jamie's father Pappy McAllan, a role that makes Mike Ehrmantraut look like a swell guy. It's not set during the Civil War like most of our picks, but "Mudbound" should captivate audiences no matter their interests.


In the wake of some of the deadliest fighting of the Civil War, the Union began searching for new ways to replenish its numbers. As a result, they formed units like the historic 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. Composed entirely of volunteers, it was one of the first in the nation to have its ranks filled by African American soldiers. Not long after, they proved themselves in combat and in the pages of history after a historic assault on the Confederate-controlled Fort Wagner.

Featuring a breakthrough performance from beloved actor Morgan Freeman, "Glory" also marks the first Academy Award win for Denzel Washington and a noteworthy change of pace for Matthew Broderick coming off of the '80s comedy favorite "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." While director Edward Zwick's direction is certainly crucial to the film's success, it's safe to say that it likely wouldn't have found the same level of heart if not for the standout cast's ability to honor the regiment's sacrifices. In "Emancipation," Peter's struggles fighting alongside Union troops serve as a defining moment for his story. The heroes of "Glory" endure similar hardships in their fight against adversaries on both sides of the conflict, making "Glory" an easy pick for our list.

Dances with Wolves

After barely escaping from the clutches of death during a bloody battle against Confederate forces, Union Lieutenant John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) is reassigned to a remote fort along the Western frontier. Upon arrival, he finds himself the only soul willing to man the outpost, as its former inhabitants have presumably deserted the fort. Undeterred, he follows through with the mission, soon encountering members of the nearby Sioux tribe. Though relations between Dunbar and the Sioux get off on the wrong foot, he soon gains a better understanding of their way of life, ultimately respecting it to such a degree that he even ponders leaving his old life behind.

Boasting an impressive runtime at just over three hours, "Dances with Wolves" may scare off some viewers, but many of those who've taken the plunge into this sprawling epic have recognized it as worth the journey. The Academy Award-winning film managed to hold its own against some stiff competition at the 1991 Oscars, most notably beating out the acclaimed classic "Goodfellas" for the coveted title of best picture among other awards. While the win is still seen as controversial decades later, it serves as a testament to the incredible level of quality that the film achieves. And though the events of "Dances with Wolves" are very different than those of "Emancipation," a shared message of rejecting prejudice for humanity elevates both films.


As the name suggests, "Lincoln" follows the life and exploits of the president who led the country through one of its greatest historic struggles. Set in early 1865 as the Civil War continues its deadly slog, President Lincoln struggles to navigate the complicated political landscape of the time. Wanting to end the war as quickly as possible to spare the country more bloodshed, he also must carefully balance reintegrating the secessionist states too quickly in order to avoid losing hard-won gains, namely the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

Though this one trades the action of films like "Emancipation" for more refined drama, it provides an incredible insight into the high-stakes battle waged in Washington at the time. Brought to us by acclaimed director Steven Spielberg, his own talents are matched by Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead role, which earned Day-Lewis a best performance by an actor in a leading role Oscar in 2013, and helped the film enjoy high praise from critics and audiences alike. For any fans of history, we consider "Lincoln" to be essential viewing.

Django Unchained

The year is 1858, and the American Civil War is just on the horizon. The looming conflict is just an afterthought, however, for recently freed slave Django Freeman (Jamie Foxx). Separated from his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who is still enslaved, he vows to secure her freedom no matter the cost. He's not alone in the endeavor, as his own freedom is the result of a run-in with his newfound ally Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, perhaps best remembered as the twisted Colonel Landa in "Inglourious Basterds."). A former dentist who now works as a bounty hunter, Schultz joins forces with Django to track down bounties across the South and hopefully free Django's wife.

While this one strays from expectations when it comes to historical accuracy in favor of director Quentin Tarantino's signature moviemaking style, we think "Django Unchained" still deserves a spot on our list. The story of Django's bloody fight to protect himself and those near to him is similar to Peter's own struggle in "Emancipation," with the brutal action and grand visuals being just icing on the cake for what's now remembered as one of the best entries in Tarantino's filmography.

The Last of the Mohicans

As the might of the French and British militaries met on the battlefields of Europe in the 18th century, so too did their forces already spread across the globe. The various clashes from what's now referred to as the Seven Years' War — a pivotal moment in history that ultimately sets into motion the events of the American Revolution just a few years later. The theater of the wider war spent in the Americas known as the French and Indian War serves as the setting for the original novel and its 1992 film adaptation, "The Last of the Mohicans."

With both the French and British forces trying to gain the upper hand against one another, they ally themselves with various Native tribes in the region. Among them are the Mohicans, a nearly nonexistent group on the verge of annihilation, which is where the story of Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) begins. A white man who is adopted by the tribe at a young age, he and his peers are begrudgingly drawn into the conflict. Now finding themselves the enemies of both the occupying French soldiers and their Huron allies, they become locked in a battle of both vengeance and survival. Even though it's set some time before the Civil War, viewers looking for another historical classic with plenty of action need look no further than "The Last of the Mohicans."


If you think "Dances with Wolves" is generous with its runtime, strap yourself in for this one. Considered by many to be one of the greatest, if not the premiere film set during the American Civil War, "Gettysburg" makes that claim hard to argue against with a marvelous execution of its highly ambitious scope. With a runtime clocking in at comfortably over four hours, "Gettysburg" fully delivers on its imposing length by crafting what just might be one of the best war epics of all time by its conclusion.

As you would rightly expect, the film follows the events of the three-day battle of Gettysburg, now considered by many scholars to be the single most definitive battle of the entire war. No expense is spared as the 1993 film chronicles the struggles of everyone from Generals Lee and Meade to the enlisted men fighting for both the Union and Confederacy. Though "Gettysburg" doesn't focus on the plight of enslaved people like "Emancipation," it accurately portrays the harrowing experience of the conflict on both sides of the pivotal battle to such a degree that it's a must-watch for any history fan.

The Red Badge of Courage

Adapted from the pages of a novel of the same name, "The Red Badge of Courage" showcases the struggles of the Civil War through the eyes of a young Union soldier named Henry Fleming (played by Audie Murphy, himself a highly decorated hero of World War II turned actor). Unlike the actor playing him, however, Fleming's first taste of combat against Confederate forces ends in disaster with the inexperienced private ultimately fleeing from the front lines. Soon finding himself consumed by guilt for abandoning his comrades, he endures an unpleasant journey of self-discovery as he attempts to overcome internal enemies of fear and doubt.

Despite being the oldest pick on our lineup, "The Red Badge of Courage" distinguishes itself for its unwavering commitment to showing the true horrors of war. Notable for being a non-romanticized depiction of the bloodiest war in United States history, especially compared with similar films from the era, it becomes clear that the film deserves all the praise it gets and then some. An enthralling story of determination and bravery told in a realistic manner, "The Red Badge of Courage" is an unexpected but worthy film for both viewers of "Emancipation" and film buffs alike.

Cold Mountain

After an opening sequence that might just feature one of the most brutal depictions of Civil War combat ever put to film, "Cold Mountain" changes things up by pivoting to one man's desperate struggle to reunite with his lover. After he barely survives a harrowing experience on the battlefield, Confederate soldier William Inman (Jude Law) makes the difficult decision to desert his comrades and head to his home of Cold Mountain, North Carolina. Waiting for him there is his love Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman), but the journey is easier said than done. Between them are hundreds of miles of wilderness, as well as Confederate troops at every turn looking to catch deserters.

Not unlike "Emancipation," "Cold Mountain" focuses on an arduous journey against insurmountable odds. While it may be a love story first and foremost, the treacherous conditions in both the wilderness and back home at Cold Mountain make the film a suspenseful experience to say the least. Though not met with overwhelming praise like some of our other entries, it remains a worthy offering for anyone looking for an American history-based tale of determination.

Ride with the Devil

While many of the films we've covered explore people and events related to the Civil War that even casual fans of history are likely familiar with, "Ride with the Devil" is centered entirely around an oft-forgotten front in the conflict. In this story, far from the pivotal battles at places such as Antietam and Gettysburg, nearly the entire state of Missouri has fallen under the same specter of war. Guerilla fighters aligned with either the Union or Confederacy spread across the state are locked in battle against one another, which is where the story of Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) and Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) begins.

Longtime friends, both Jake and Jack find themselves drawn into the conflict after the brutal murder of Jack's father at the hands of Union-aligned Jayhawkers. In turn, and in the hopes of avenging his death, they join up with the Bushwhackers — a loosely organized band of fighters sympathetic to the Confederacy. Along their blood-soaked quest for vengeance, they cross paths with George Clyde (Simon Baker) and Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright), who harbor similar resentment against the Union Army. As they wind up discovering, however, in times of war, true evil isn't so picky about which side it chooses.

12 Years a Slave

"12 Years a Slave" follows the trying life of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free African American and family man whose peaceful life is stolen after he's illegally kidnapped and sold into slavery. During the 12 years he spends in captivity, Solomon is forced to endure and bear witness to all of the hardships and atrocities that permeated this tragic chapter of history.

Compared to the others on this list, this entry probably has the most in common with the featured film, and admittedly most readers have probably heard of it before. Nonetheless, it remains one of the best films ever released to tackle its sensitive subject matter — evidenced by its earning of the prestigious title of best picture at the Academy Awards — and one that deserves to be seen by audiences of all kinds. Its events are made even more impactful by the fact that the film is adapted from a memoir by the real-life Solomon Northup, whose writings and story were brought to new audiences in the modern era thanks to the efforts of director Steve McQueen.